February 3, 2013

Lone Star Birding

We recently returned from one of our favorite winter birding destinations, South Texas. Most people don't think of Texas as a warm-weather getaway but we had a great time there while missing temperatures in the teens here in Ohio. South Texas features unusual habitats, many birds that we'll never see in Ohio, lots of butterfly diversity, and some of the nicest birders and naturalists we've ever met. Since our first trip to this area in 1989, several new birding locations have been added, giving easy access to a variety of habitats via boardwalks and other visitor facilities.

After renting a car in Corpus Christi we headed north to the town of Rockport and the nearby Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The Aransas area is the wintering site for the only completely wild migratory flock of endangered Whooping Cranes and these huge birds are the main attraction here although there are plenty of other things to see as well. Less than 25 Whooping Cranes existed in the wild in the 1940s, and they number only about 600 today. The Aransas flock winters in Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, Canada, a twice-yearly journey of 2500 miles.

We were very lucky these year and saw 8 of the birds! Aransas has built a wonderful observation platform that was under construction when we were visiting last year. This year it was complete and we had excellent views of a family group of cranes as well as many ducks and shorebirds. At the top an interpretive staffer from the Refuge (a former Ohioan--we met several of those on this trip!) was available to help people spot birds and to explain all about the Whooping Cranes.

The cranes are amazing! At one point we had views of both Sandhill Cranes and Whooping Cranes. The sandhills have always seemed like huge birds to me but the whoopers were much larger. Whooping Crane pairs usually only have 1 chick live to maturity each year; this low birthrate plus habitat loss and historical hunting pressure explain their small population. Here is a photo of a couple of these magnificent animals:

After visiting Aransas we headed back to Rockport. We always enjoy driving along the shore here and seeing the flocks of ducks and other birds that hang out along the piers and jetties. Here is a group of White Pelicans:

I love these huge birds! Here are more in the water:

Flocks of Avocets were feeding on critters that they stirred up from the sediment using their up-curved bills:

And Black Skimmers flew gracefully past, using their strangely long lower mandible to scoop fish and invertebrates out of the water:

As you can tell from these photos, we were losing the light as time passed too quickly. The upside of that was a nice sunset:

Getting up early the next morning, we were rewarded with a spectacular sunrise:

After admiring the sunrise we drove around Rockport again, checking out the bird activity. This Brown Pelican posed nicely for us!

To get to our next major destination, South Padre Island, we drove back through Corpus Christi and stopped at a couple of natural areas on the way. The best is called the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center, which features a boardwalk and elevated viewing platform in a large cattail marsh. 

Northern Harriers patrolled the entire area, checking out the variety of  ducks, terns, gulls and shorebirds that winter here. Here are some Blue-winged Teal, enjoying the winter in Texas before heading north in the spring. They are quite common in Ohio in the summer.

Next we stopped at a similar spot, the Han and Pat Suter Wildlife Area, which has a boardwalk that gives great views into Oso Bay:

It is pretty unusual to see both White and Brown Pelicans together; note how much bigger the white ones are! As we left I couldn't resist photographing this Northern Mockingbird teed up on what might be some sort of holly:

After a nice picnic at Hazel Bazemore County Park near Corpus Christi with the Nueces River on one side

and Long-Billed Curlews on the other

we headed south on Highway 77 past the iconic King Ranch property, stopping at the birder-famous Sarita Rest Stop. More about that in a future post!


  1. I understand why you go to Texas during the winter! I am amazed how many different kinds of birds you were able to see! I assume you saw many other birders there as well!
    Linda Hoffman

  2. As a brownie girl scout I did a number of trash clean up days at Han Suter Park. Glad to see it looking clean and enjoyable! My mom grew up in Rockport and I spent a lot of time there growing up, so it's nice to see such familiar and beautiful birds. Whooping cranes are a big attraction even for the locals :)