From the pen of Robert L. Cook
The World Birding Center in the Rio Grande Valley will link birding sites with state-of-the-art interpretive centers.
Okay, I admit it: I started my life list of birds in 1967. Back in those days, a young game biologist just didn’t go out into the woods to birdwatch — or, if he did, he sure didn’t tell anyone. Still, birds are so absolutely fascinating — so many varieties! such different habits and adaptations! so essential to the ecology! — that I couldn’t resist. I am a birder.
We’re fortunate to live in the state that has more bird species than any other in the nation. In the early fall, huge migrations of hawks and millions of hummingbirds funnel down the coast, heading for Central and South America. From fall through winter, waterfowl and shorebirds from the Arctic pour into Texas wetlands, spreading from the Panhandle playas to the Laguna Madre. Late in November the whooping cranes return to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and Matagorda Island. In the spring, the waterfowl head north, while the neotropicals leap off the shores of Yucatán and swarm across the Gulf, sometimes in flocks so thick their numbers can be measured by radar.
With the birds come the birdwatchers. A survey by U.S. Fish and Wildlife estimated that 2.9 million Texans participated in wildlife watching in 2001. They were joined by another 1 million visitors from out of state. Texas has become a destination state for American, Canadian, European and Asian birders. Wildlife watchers also spend money to pursue their passion — $2.6 billion in Texas, according to this survey.
Nature tourism is creating powerful economic incentives for landowners to conserve habitat. Rural communities are creating birding and butterfly festivals and nature photography contests to attract visitors. Fishing guides are offering coastal birding tours by boat. Bed-and-breakfast owners are learning how to cater to birdwatchers, too: The Dallas Morning News recently reported that 1,000 visitors a year paid $35 apiece to see a ferruginous pygmy owl that lives on an innkeeper’s South Texas property.
Often what birdwatchers want is information. In the late 1990s, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department created the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, the first state-sponsored nature driving tour in the nation. The map of the trail identifies 308 key birdwatching sites along the coast. With 400,000 copies distributed, the trail is such a success that 10 other states are copying its method. And so are we; three new birding trails are in the works for Texas: the Heart of Texas Trail, the Panhandle Plains Trail and the Prairies and Pineywoods Trail.
The department is working on another project to provide destinations for the burgeoning market in birding. The World Birding Center in the Rio Grande Valley will include several thousand acres of habitat, and link birding sites with state-of-the-art interpretive centers. The attraction is nearly 500 bird species, including such South Texas specialties as the green jay, the great kiskadee and the chachalaca.
Almost any time of year is a good time to go birding in Texas, but April has become the premier month. Don’t be surprised if you hear German or Japanese being spoken on a Texas birding trail this spring. Texas birds are drawing tourists from around the world.