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Texas a birder's paradise: throughout the seasons, the national park units in Texas provide fertile ground for birdwatchers. Diligent birders can find more than 500 species annually, and the parks across the state provide great places for observation, hiking, and camping. (Excursions).

When warm spring breezes rustle the piney woods of Big Thicket National Preserve, brown-headed nuthatches can be seen gathering seeds overhead. In nearby Angelina National Forest, a rare red-cockaded woodpecker lands at its den in a pitch-covered long-leaf pine. On a quiet summer morning in Big Bend National Park, visitors marvel at white-throated swifts fluttering along a canyon wall as a peregrine falcon suddenly dives with breathtaking speed to catch a swift on the wing.

Then, when autumn hues enliven McKittrick Canyon in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, rock wrens are seen prowling beneath time-worn boulders while the occasional golden eagle circles above. And as winter winds sweep the wide beaches of Padre Island National Seashore, ruffling the feathers of Wilson's plovers pattering along the dunes, watchers can shift their eyes from the plovers to brown pelicans skimming the breakers to reddish egrets fishing in backwater lagoons.

Throughout the seasons, Texas is nothing less than a paradise for birders, and National Park Service areas across the state provide great places for observation, hiking, and camping. With habitats ranging from cypress swamps and subtropical scrub to barrier islands, whitewater rivers, and arid mountains, diligent birders can find more than 500 species annually. So gather your binoculars, bird book, and maps, and prepare to expand your personal checklist!

Big Thicket National Preserve

Big Thicket, in the eastern part of the state, typifies an "ecological crossroads" where eastern hardwood forests, gulf coastal plains, and Midwestern prairies meet. Two migratory flyways, the Central and Mississippi, cross this 97,000-acre preserve. Upland and flood-plain forests provide homes for birds as diverse as swallow-tailed kites, hairy woodpeckers, and Bachman's sparrows. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization has designated Big Thicket an International Biosphere Reserve, and the American Bird Conservancy recently included the park (as well as Padre Island and Big Bend) in its worldwide listing of Globally Important Bird Areas.

Eight hiking trails in the preserve lead to a variety of habitats. Birdwatcher's Trail affords panoramic views of the east bank of the Trinity River where shorebirds, raptors, and migrant songbirds frequent the sandbars. Collin's Pond and Kirby nature trails feature wetlands where herons, egrets, thrushes, and vireos are common. Pitcher Plant and Sundew trails traverse wet savannahs frequented by woodpeckers, warblers, and nuthatches.

The preserve's visitor center is located north of Kountze. Backcountry camping is available; food and lodging may also be found in the nearby communities of Woodville, Kountze, Silsbee, and Beaumont.

Spring and fall are the most pleasant seasons for outdoor activities, especially for birders hoping to take advantage of the spring migrations, from late March through early May, and the fall migrations, in October and November. In addition to binoculars and bird guides, take drinking water, sun protection, and insect repellant on hikes. For more information, call park headquarters at 409-246-2337 or go to www.nps.gov/bith.

Padre Island National Seashore

The 113-mile Padre Island National Seashore is the longest barrier island in the world. Padre Island National Seashore preserves 65.5 miles of that vast beach expanse in its original, undeveloped condition. Habitats include surfwashed beaches, windswept dunes, coastal prairie grasslands, freshwater ponds, and the shore of Laguna Madre, a shallow saltwater lagoon. More than 350 species of birds have been seen at the seashore, which lies along one of the main migration routes between North and Central America.

Birdwatchers can explore the Grasslands Trail, where eastern meadowlarks, horned larks, grasshopper sparrows, and Sprague's pipits seek refuge. White-tailed hawks perch atop scattered mesquite trees to scan the dunes for rodents. Loggerhead shrikes and northern harriers frequent the area, and during the winter, sandhill cranes stalk insects. Bird Island Basin on Laguna Madre is accessible via a paved road near the park entrance. Check roadside ponds for mottled ducks, least bitterns, tricolored herons, and killdeer. Small flocks of white pelicans and wintering ducks gather near the boat ramp, while rare least terns and piping and snowy plovers feed along North and South beaches. Shorebirds including long-billed curlews, sanderlings, and willets join resident laughing gulls on the beaches. Ocean-going sooty terns and masked boobies are sometimes seen after storms.

Malaquite Beach Visitor Center offers occasional ranger-led bird walks and lists recent sightings. Summers are hot and humid, but winters remain mild. Bring a hat, sunscreen, and plenty of drinking water. Camping sites as well as snacks are available near the visitor center. For more information, visit the park's web site at www.nps.gov/pais or call 361-949-8068.

Lodging and restaurants are abundant in Corpus Christi, and the popular South Padre Island resort area is located three hours south via Highway 77.

Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park, where the Rio Grande makes a sweeping turn along the Mexican border, has recorded 446 bird species, more than any other national park in the country. Birders know Big Bend especially for Colima warblers, small gray-brown birds that nest nowhere else in the United States. From April through September, birders hike the Colima Trail or explore oak-maple habitats in Boot Canyon, high into the Chisos Mountains, listening for the rapid trill of these elusive creatures.

Boot and other Chisos canyons are also home to bandtailed pigeons, acorn woodpeckers, and Mexican (or gray-breasted) jays. Zone-tailed hawks soar overhead. Blue-throated hummingbirds nest along moist mountain canyons. Lucifer hummingbirds, identified by forked tails (males) and down-curved beaks, congregate around blooming century plants in mid-summer. The Window Trail below Basin campground is a good place to look for ladder-backed woodpeckers, gray vireos, and varied buntings. Campers may hear elf or great-horned owls at night. The Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River encompasses nearly 200 miles of riparian habitat in and downstream from the park. Birders find access at Rio Grande Village and Mariscal Canyon to observe vermilion flycatchers, yellow-breasted chats, blue grosbeaks, and painted buntings.

Summers are hot along the river, but cooler in the mountains. Winters are mild, with light snow possible. In this arid environment, hikers should consume a gallon of water per day. Park campgrounds are open year-round, and Chisos Mountains Lodge offers rooms and dining. There are four camper stores; Rio Grande Village includes a service station. For lodge reservations, call 915-477-2291. To learn more about park facilities, call 915-477-2251 or visit www.nps.gov/bibe or www.nps.gov/rigr.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

The Guadalupe Mountains, which include the highest point in Texas, entice visitors with fascinating geology and desert wildlife. Cactus, yucca, and agave dapple the surrounding Chihuahuan desert where scaled quail, Say's phoebes, and black-throated sparrows reside. McKittrick Canyon, where wildflowers cling to rock-lined seeps and canyon wrens fill the air with their lilting songs, is a popular hiking destination. Canyon towhees and black-headed grosbeaks drink regularly at thirst-quenching pools. Mountain chickadees and pygmy and white-breasted nuthatches dwell in pine-fir-aspen forests of the highest slopes.

Nights are cool, and sudden weather changes are common. Expect high winds in winter and spring. A rainy period in August typically produces "second summer" flowering and bird nesting cycles. The park is open year-round, although access to McKittrick Canyon is day-use only. Indian Meadow Trail at Dog Canyon Campground and Pinery Trail at Pine Springs Campground are good for birding forays. Cafes are located at Salt Flat and Nickel Creek. Otherwise, food and lodging are found in White City, New Mexico. For more information, call 915-828-3251 or visit www.nps.gov/gumo.

The Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail--the first in the nation to protect habitat for birds--highlights 308 federal, state, and local birding sites from Beaumont to Brownsville. Among the best stops are Big Thicket, Padre Island, and four national wildlife refuges. Visit www.tpwd.state.tx.us/birdingtrails for trip-planning information or watch for distinctive "bird in flight" road signs en route. View an online bird checklist at www.tpwd.state.tx.us/nature/wild/birds/txchecklist/intro. For more information about the refuges, visit www.southwest.fws.gov/refuges.

Connie Toops is a freelance nature writer and photographer based in North Carolina. In addition to writing regularly for National Parks, she is a contributing editor for Birder's World magazine.
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Author:Toops, Connie
Publication:National Parks
Geographic Code:1U7TX
Date:Mar 1, 2003
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