BIRD WATCH: Texas birding makes for lasting memories

I LOVE TEXAS. I’ve considered it special ever since childhood.

You can’t grow up crazy about horses and cowboys without giving part of your heart to the Lone Star state.

Zane Grey’s novels of the early West played a big part in my admiration of Texas and Texans. That was long before I had the opportunity to visit the land of Pecos Bill. It was actually bird-watching that took me to that region.

The Texas Gulf Coast is one of the best birding areas in all of North America. Birders from all over the world travel there hoping to see a large share of the 647 bird species recorded for that state.

I think I’ve birded the area about five times, and I would love to do it again. The memories that piled up during those visits urge me to “make just one more trip.” There’s sure to be one or more life birds waiting.

The Houston region holds my first memory of this land bordering the Gulf of Mexico. It is flat.

From Houston, we drove to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. The goal was to see as many of its rail species as possible.

Swamp buggies took us into the grassy wetlands. Alligators dozed in the ditches. They always got my attention, especially when I could see them watching us.

We were greeted at the refuge entrance by a clapper rail. It was just strolling down the middle of the road, pausing for pictures and telling us this would be a great day.

We added king rail and the elusive yellow rail the same day. After that, we knew this would be a trip to remember.

Another Texas birding memory remains a picture in my mind. We were up before sunrise, headed for Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

During the night, wild turkeys had been roosting in some of the low trees lining the refuge road. Large wild turkeys dropping from a tree just as the sun broke across the grasslands was an introduction to another great day of birding.

Aransas is best known for its whooping cranes. Every spring, this flock of whoopers travels to Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada’s Northwest Territories. It’s a long, dangerous trip to these breeding grounds up north, but they do it twice a year.

On the return trip in the fall, their youngsters make their first trip, and some of these endangered birds won’t survive. Seeing these magnificent white cranes in the grassy wetlands on the refuge was a birder’s dream come true.

On another trip to this coast, I experienced my first “fall-out.” During migration, birds can be held up by strong winds or they can be aided by them; it all depends on the direction. We experienced both in Texas.

On one trip, they were flying right over the refuge without stopping. The strong southern winds were a free ride north. The second time, the winds were blowing hard from the north and birds were dropping everywhere, waiting for them to change.

The birds that collected in just about every tree and bush surrounding the small pond on Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge included another life bird.

I’ll never forget the painting buntings that collected in that spot. This bird is a rainbow of colors and you can never see them too often. We walked the trail over and over, never tiring of looking at them.

My memories of Texas birding are similar to those of the many thousands who have birded this area over the decades. I’m dreading hearing about Hurricane Harvey’s treatment of Gulf Coast birds and the refuges that sustain them.

They will recover, but we all are wondering, how long it will take before the Texas Tropical Trail is once again welcoming birders.

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Joan Carson’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at P.O. Box 532, Poulsbo, WA 98370, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Email: [email protected].

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