Travel

South Padre Island: Spring break for fledgling birders

What a library is to a researcher, a chocolate shop is to a sweet tooth and a mountain is to a climber - that's what South Padre Island can be to a novice birder.

Resource. Joy. Adventure.

This town at the southern end of a slim barrier island that hugs the Texas Gulf Coast from near Matagorda almost to Brownsville is an open-air aviary of known, lesser-known, seldom-seen, Texas-only, shy, raucous and graceful bird species - more than 400 visiting or nesting residents, according to the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center.

All of this flutter and flap make it a gimme for spotting birds, something every beginner can appreciate. Want can't-miss color? The brilliant green jay will oblige. Need something big? Brown pelicans are handy. Hoping for something with brag rights? Look among blossoms for a buff-bellied hummingbird, a sprite that migrates into the toe of Texas and stays there in spring and summer.

For the person who loves nature and would like to become a serious or hobbyist birder, South Padre Island - both the island and town that share the name - is a place to get started.

So many birds funnel through this area where the Central and Mississippi migratory flyways converge, that it's impossible to not see fliers specific to the Rio Grande Valley and others you'd have to travel through several states and Canada to inspect as closely.

"It's not so important that (watchers) know the birds by name but that they enjoy it and understand habitat," says Scarlet Colley, a coastal birding authority and director of the Sea Life Center in Port Isabel, on the mainland end of the bridge linking the island with the rest of Texas.

As for South Padre, it's "absolutely fabulous for beginners," she says, adding, "Every year, you learn a little more."

Although March to early May are the best weeks for seeing migrants, enough avian visitors spend spring and summer in the area that the bird spotting remains good through summer and into the southbound fall migration. Waterfowl gather here in winter.

Without leaving the immediate area, and armed with binoculars and a field guide to birds, it's a cinch to compile a memorable trip list. I did just that over four days on the island and nearby mainland.

I consider myself an advanced beginner, able to identify backyard and fence-line birds, some hawks and vultures overhead, and a share of other species here and overseas. But on this trip, I laughed at myself for focusing my binoculars on "birds" that turned out to be low-floating buoys. Nonetheless, as I drove back to Dallas, my notebook contained a roster of 86 species identified.

Although the Rio Grande Valley has many sites where birders can scan trees, grasses, shrubs and shores, I limited my treasure hunt to five: beach, a boat ride into South Bay (where dolphins are a bonus), the Arroyo Colorado river, Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, and the boardwalk shared by the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center and the town's convention center.

Along the nut-brown sands of the beach, palm-size sanderlings ("wave runners") dash to receding water to check for morsels left behind, then dart landward as a new roller flattens onto the beach. Laughing gulls hoot and cackle at hand-holding tourists and fitness enthusiasts pacing the flat miles of sand. Basic-brown willets work the water's edge, tall enough to stalk the shallows and dig for mollusks or crabs. Terns, their black heads looking like well-oiled toupees, jet overhead.

Cruising the bay

Scarlet's Fins to Feathers nature cruise into South Bay pauses at isolated shorelines where privacy-loving plovers, least sandpipers, cormorants, night herons, spoonbills and more are near enough to the idling boat that it's possible to study their identifying marks. We nose toward a grove of black mangroves where she and her husband, George, and some of their previous waterborne excursionists have seen the elusive mangrove warbler. A canary-yellow bird with a handsome chestnut head and sweet song, it's a relatively new nester along the coast. Serious birders come from far away to see it, and a spotting would be a coup for a beginner. But, today it's hunkered against an early-evening spring breeze and refuses to show itself.

On the river

I move from gulf to river on a four-hour cruise on the Arroyo Colorado with Aaron Reed of Kiskadee Charters. This tributary of the Rio Grande is 90 miles long, but we'll cover only 26, from Laguna Madre, the bay sandwiched between South Padre Island and the mainland, to docks by Harlingen upriver. Aaron knows my heart's desire. I'd long hoped to see a great kiskadee, a South Texas flycatcher that also dives for fish. Lemon yellow underneath, reddish brown on wings and tail, with broad black horizontal stripes on its white head, the kiskadee is an eye-catcher. Ear-catching is its loud call, a trumpeted, "Not me!"

Aaron knew just where to aim his 18-foot fishing skiff to find a kiskadee. Several, in fact, hollering denials and sailing among the trees and brush. I note in my field guide, "10:10 a.m. Joy!"

Three species of kingfishers (ringed, belted and green), osprey in trees and overhead, a dervish of gulls whirling above a wharf, the dusky plumage of a green heron, hawks, wild turkeys and more add to amazements along the river. Aaron's trip list numbers 53 species.

Climates converge

The 90,000 acres of the Laguna Atascosa refuge, about an hour from the town of South Padre Island, is at the convergence of desert, temperate, costal and tropical climates, and the great diversity of bird-life (415 species tallied) and wildlife find niches within the variations. Of the 50 ocelots - small wildcats - remaining in the U.S., 20 are on the preserve, according to Sue Woodson, guiding a two-hour tram tour of the 15-mile Bayside Wildlife Drive. She and her husband, Dave, are knowledgeable volunteers, catching the pop-up of bobwhite quail in a bush's low branches, spotting a family of white-tailed deer in tall grass, picking out savannah sparrows flitting on a mud bank.

Trails behind the refuge's visitor center offer delights as well, especially in the racketing of garrulous, pheasant-size chachalacas and the loud comments by the green jay, a Ferrari among birds with green, blue, black and bright yellow feathers. Watchers bring spotting scopes, long-lens cameras and the naked eye to the trails' watering holes, and all see wonders.

Spotting made simple

The easiest pickings, however, are at the island's birding and nature center and next-door convention center, where a linked mile-long boardwalk meanders over mudflats, by streams, past weedy fields to marsh and sandy shore.

Saltwater, freshwater and brackish water come together here and concentrate the birds.

"They're everywhere. They each have their own habitat," Patricia Burke, birding center volunteer coordinator, says.

"We have the most cooperative birds in the (Rio Grande) valley," says Tamie Bulow, birding center manager. "They're so agreeable to being looked at by people on the boardwalk."

A curlew, its long bill like a pry bar, levers mollusks from the mud. A white ibis preens with its curved red bill. A spotted sandpiper bobs its backend like a boogie king. A reddish egret stands motionless, a still-life of posture and smoke-and-rust feathers.

"There's such a wide variety," Tamie says. "Big birds are entertaining for beginning birders because they're so easy to identify, and we have a lot of these."

The close-ups from the boardwalk hold potential for what Tamie and Aaron call the "aha!" bird - the sighting so exciting that it transforms a casual watcher into a birder.

South Padre's hundreds of species seem to campaign for the "aha!" title, to be the switch that turns a beginner on for life.

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