Observing the Fall Bird Migration
The arc of coastline from Florida to Texas is both an important destination and jumping off point for migrating birds. Here are three of our picks for birding locales.
Florida Big Bend
While there's much wildlife all along the state's intricate shores, the sparsely populated Big Bend region stands out as a prime destination for experiencing a plethora of wildlife, including a shifting array of birds. If you crave wilderness, head for St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge, a 12,000 acre, uninhabited island. You can explore lakes, marshes, dunes, and pine and hardwood communities protecting to unique sub-tropical understory species. Great egrets, snowy egrets, tri-colored herons, and little blue herons nest in the island rookeries. Snowy plovers and American oystercatchers nest on the beaches. Wood storks stop for nourishment. Seaside sparrows nest in large numbers and neotropical birds stop for food and shelter during spring and fall migrations.
You can actually drive to St. Marks NWR, as well as walk there on the Florida National Scenic trail. This is a great spot for wintering waterfowl include green-winged teal, redhead, scaup, coot, pintail, and bufflehead. Tricolored, black-crowned night, great blue, and little blue herons; and great and snowy egrets all nest in refuge rookeries. Numerous shorebird species arrive during migrations. Both bald eagles and opreys maintain a number of nests.
But you don't need to stop your exploration of Florida's Big Bend with these two refuges. You'll find several more refuges along Big Bend, each with its own unique character.
Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail
On the other end of the U.S. Gulf Coast, Texas Parks and Wildlife has developed the "Great Texas Coastal Birding Trails," a series of driving trails that connects 308 wildlife viewing sites running from the Louisiana border, through Kingsville at the end of Baffin Bay on down to Brownsville near the Mexican border. Highlights include Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, the famous home of the Whooping Crane. Best time to see the cranes are mid-October to March. Less than 350 are alive in the wild today; over half that number can be found in the winter at Aransas. Just down the coast at Corpus Christi, a hawkwatch has been set up at Smith Point beginning in mid-August.
The south Texas refuges are especially exhilarating in the fall when birds mix from both directions. Laguna Atascosa and nearby Laguna Madre host about 80 percent of the winter population of redhead ducks. Birds not seen in other parts of the U.S. come up from Mexico, including parrots and green jays. Santa Ana NWR is the place to see huge flights of White-winged doves and migrating broadwing hawks.
To get a copy of the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail map, call Texas Parks and Wildlife at 888-900-2577.
Dauphin Island, AL
It's the last chance to see many neo-tropicals before they make their way over the Gulf of Mexico. As befits the fall, the birds come in sporadic waves rather than at all once. So you don't have to time your birdwatching to a single, two-day "fall out." Dauphin Island is also an excellent place for spotting shorebirds.
Dr. John Porter, the "dean" of Dauphin Island birdwatchers, recommends six spots: the island's east end, the airport, the Audubon Bird Sanctuary, the Shell Mound Park, the Goat Tree Reserve, and the island's west end. The Audubon Bird Sancturary is a particular treasure: 160 compact acres of mixed habitat, including pine forest, hardwood forest, dune beaches, swamp, and freshwater lake. Reaching the island's west end can be a little tricky. According to Dr. Porter, the sand bars are constantly changing. But you can puzzle it out.
You'll find many other great birding spots along the Alabama coast. The Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau and other partners have pulled together a brochure listing 50 spots that make up the "Alabama Coastal Birding Trail." To get a copy, call 877-226-9089.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication