“Look! There’s a buff-belly at the feeder!”
That excited cry can only mean one thing: it’s time once again for the annual HummerBird Celebration in Rockport, Texas (rockport-fulton.org). In a state where bigger is better, the world’s smallest birds take center stage every September for this special event. During the fall migration, the air is filled with the buzz of hummingbirds that stop for a few days before beginning their non-stop journey to South America, a two-day trip over open Gulf waters. First, though, they spend their days in Rockport at hundreds of feeding stations in town, storing up all the energy their tiny bodies can contain.
Recognizing all the birds that either live permanently or make a pit stop along the Coastal Bend, this annual celebration (rockporthummingbird.com) is scheduled for Sept. 18-21 and features guest speakers, an arts and crafts show, guided bus tours to popular birding sites, self-guided trips to hummer homes and boat birding cruises. Even if you don’t know the difference between a goose and a gull, you’ll enjoy tours led by expert birding guides who point out and identify birds.
Self-guided tours during the festival also visit private homes positively buzzing with hummingbirds. In recent years, the city has made a concerted effort to encourage residents to attract hummingbirds by sponsoring workshops and classes. As a result, citizens have planted flowering bushes and vines to attract these tiny migrators to their backyard habitats, choosing native plants and avoiding imported exotics. (For example, plants from Asia and Africa have not evolved with hummingbirds as their pollinators, so they do not have nectar receptacles.) Instead, Rockport residents have chosen native plants, such as Turk’s Cap, which are attractive to the hummers and thrive in the area’s climate. You will also see Trumpet Vine, Honeysuckle, Salvia, Impatiens and Coral Bean in many Rockport yards. These flowering plants are perfect for the hummingbird’s long, narrow beak.
In addition to planting and maintaining hummingbird gardens, residents along the Coastal Bend also have taken on the Herculean task of maintaining liquid feeders with many homes having a dozen or so feeders. Although hummingbirds are generally very territorial and may defend a feeder from all other hummers, during migration the sheer number of birds prevents any one hummingbird from taking over a feeder or feeding station. The birds are in such a constant feeding frenzy that it is not uncommon for feeders to need replenishing every few hours.
Rockport boasts five migrating hummingbird species: ruby-throated, Rufous, broad-tailed, black-chinned and buff-bellied. If you are fortunate, you may even spot rare Costa’s or Anna’s hummingbirds joining in the feast.
The most commonly seen hummingbird in Texas, and the only one found nesting east of the Mississippi is the ruby-throated. Distinguished by the male’s red throat and metallic green head, this three-and-one-half-inch-long bird can be seen at most feeders in the Rockport area.
In fact, you will probably see five ruby-throats for every one Rufous hummingbird. Rufous males have reddish plumage with an iridescent red throat gorge and nest in the Pacific Northwest. The black-chinned hummingbird migrates from the western states, and the males sport a black chin and an adjoining purple metallic throat. A mountain inhabitant, the broad-tailed hummingbird is similar to the ruby-throated, but can be distinguished by the male’s broader gorge and the shrill whistling sound made by its wings during its late-summer molt. The rarer Buff-bellied Hummingbird can be identified by its bright orange bill and buff coloration.
Even if you can’t make it to Rockport during the HummerBird Celebration, you’re still heading into a birding hotspot – especially during the fall and winter months. The Texas Coastal Bend is situated where two birding flyways merge into the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail which winds through refuges, preserves, marshes, and beaches in this birding capital. Maps to the birding trail are available through the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (tpwd.state.tx.us) or can be purchased at many of the visitors’ centers along the coast.
In the town of Rockport, you’ll find birding sites as well, all available on a map at Visitors Center and hotel desks. One popular stop is the Connie Hagar Wildlife Refuge, named for the woman who focused the eyes (and binoculars) of the birding world on Rockport. Hagar herself migrated to Rockport in the 1930s, drawn by the large number of birds she had seen on an earlier visit and, for the next three decades, she chronicled the comings and goings of hundreds of species.
Up the coast from Rockport, the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge is the home of the magnificent whooping crane, a bird that stands five feet tall and winters here in the salty marsh areas. The Refuge is also home to a variety of waterfowl and shore birds (and alligators!) and offers hiking trails, camping, and picnic sites.
South of Rockport, Aransas Pass (aransaspass.org), nicknamed “Saltwater Heaven,” is a favorite with anglers but it’s also home to Texas’s largest hummingbird garden at Newberry Park. You’ll also have the chance to spot both indigenous birds and migrating species at the Aransas Pass Nature Park at Johnson Community Park, the Conn Brown Ship Harbor and Intracoastal Channel and the Aransas Pass Causeway area between Aransas Pass and Port Aransas.
From Aransas Pass, hop a free ferry to cross over to Port Aransas (portaransas.org) – best known to Texas travelers as “Port A.” Popular for its deep sea fishing and spectacular beaches, Port Aransas is also a birding center and is home to the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center. Landscaped with plants to attract migrating hummingbirds, the wide boardwalk is wheelchair accessible and includes an ADA-compliant free telescope to spot brown pelicans, great egrets and roseate spoonbills – or even some resident alligators named Boots and Bags. From the raised observation tower, you can also watch bird and boating activity on the Corpus Christi Ship Channel.
Every winter, Port Aransas recognizes the region’s five-foot-tall winter visitors with the Whooping Crane Festival, scheduled for Feb. 19-22, 2015. Boat tours, photography workshops, birding seminars, a nature-themed crafts show, birding tours, and more highlight the annual event when the city really “whoops it up” over these rare birds.
From Port Aransas, it’s a bird-filled drive down Mustang Island to Padre Island and a causeway drive into Corpus Christi (visitcorpuschristitx.org). Frequently designated as “America’s Birdiest City,” Corpus Christi boasts a whole host of birding venues such as the Hans and Pat Suter Wildlife Refuge that offers a look at both native and migrant birdlife. This coastal marshland on Oso Creek includes a one-mile trail as well as an 800-foot-long boardwalk, a favorite with birders for a chance to view brown pelicans as well as numerous duck and shorebird species.
Corpus Christi is home to numerous other birding sites, so many, in fact, that you’ll find them divided into loop drives. The Corpus Christi Loop Drive includes not only the refuge but the South Texas Botanical Gardens & Nature Center, Oso Bay Park, Texas A&M – Corpus Christi Nature Trail, Texas State Aquarium and many more sites.
South of Corpus Christi, the town of Kingsville (kingsvilletexas.com) neighbors the truly Texas-sized King Ranch that sprawls across 825,000 acres – bigger than the state of Rhode Island. The Santa Gertrudis and King Ranch Santa Cruz breeds of cattle were developed here as well as the first registered American quarter horse. You can visit the ranch year around; a visitors center offers information on this historic ranch as well as guided birding tours. Both half- and full-day birding tours head out in search of some of the 356 species of birds which have been sighted here, including the country’s largest known population of ferruginous pygmy-owls. Keep the binoculars ready for colorful green jays and tropical parulas as well.
The Texas Coastal Bend is an inviting fall destination for many feathered travelers. Like the tiny hummingbird, you’ll find plenty plenty of good reasons to slow down and spend a few days in these welcoming coastal communities.
South Texas Birding Fun
Want to venture a bit farther for more birding fun? In far south Texas, Harlingen’s Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival will take place Nov. 5-9, 2014. Now in its third decade, the annual event features seminars and numerous birding trips as well as pre- and post-festival birding tours. For more information, visit www.rgvbf.org.
Many festival tours include the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, located near the city of McAllen. This park is the headquarters for the World Birding Center, a $20 million partnership between the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Rio Grande Valley Communities and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Spanning nine birding sites, these locations are home to many tropical birds that are seen nowhere else in the country.
For more, visit theworldbirdingcenter.com.