As we drove down to South Padre Island, I saw brown signs along the road, marking The Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail. Birding is one of the fastest-growing outdoor activities in the nation but, to be frank, I lack the patience for it. Then again, this is Texas, where everything is bigger including the bird population – more than six hundred species have been spotted in the state. When we stumbled upon the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center, we found that patience wasn’t necessary at all. We hadn’t even made it across the parking lot before we encountered an assortment of birds bathing in the center’s fountain.
The SPI Birding Center is housed in a pastel, yellow building with an attached, five-story observation tower that is reminiscent of a lighthouse. In a way, it does serve as a beacon for traveling birds. It is the first piece of land on the migration route from Mexico and Central America. To birds, exhausted from flying between 500-800 miles over water, these wetlands mean safety and survival.
We were greeted inside by a friendly woman, who equipped us with a checklist to help us identify fifteen of the birds commonly sighted at the center. We walked out toward the Gulf, along with one of the many raised boardwalks (there are 4800 feet of them so it’s unlikely to get too crowded) and instantly caught sight of a white ibis stalking through the mud.
A heron waited patiently in a pool of water. We squinted and examined the picture on our checklist, feeling like we were comparing a mug shot to a suspected criminal. We deduced it was a little blue heron, which seemed to be conducting a stakeout of its own. The water was clear enough for us to watch large speckled trout bully schools of teeny fish, driving them toward the heron. Luckily, they weren’t on the day’s menu.
There are seven blinds attached to the boardwalks, with birds near each one. We used them to spy a great egret, a common gallinule, a black-necked stilt, and a long-billed curlew with a beak so ginormous that we worried it would stab its toes. The great blue heron we spotted must have been in disguise because it was actually much grayer than the name suggests. However, our best discovery was yet to come.
There are alligators in the Cattail Marsh and I was determined to track one down (from the safety of the boardwalk). I scanned the banks, but there was no sign of a gator. Instead, we located a bird that wasn’t on our list. Score!
It was a brownish, delicate-looking ‘duck,’ sporting a bright orange beak and an impressive Mohawk. We decided it must be extremely rare – heck, perhaps the Audubon Society would let us name it. It could be Jane or the Luliet.
Buoyed with excitement, we continued on to bird blind six, which was surrounded by cattails and the definite smell of sewage – the SPI Birding Center is next door to the Andy Bowie Wastewater Treatment Plant. The plant treats 1.5 million gallons of water each day, processing it until it can be safely discharged into the wetlands. Odors aside, it seemed like the perfect symbiotic relationship.
Back inside the center, we reported our groundbreaking ornithological find to the lady at the front desk, who encouraged us to print out Mohawk Duck’s mugshot and send it to them. However, subsequent research suggested that the Luliet already had a name – the black-bellied whistling duck – a common waterfowl that winters in Southern Texas.
- The SPI Birding & Nature Center can be found at 6801 Padre Boulevard, Padre Island. It is near the Convention Center and Sea Turtle Inc.
- This is a non-profit organization. Entry is $5 for adults.
- Texas was a pioneer in establishing birding and wildlife viewing trails. There are many other great birding spots in the area, such as the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. Although, for virtually guaranteed bird sightings, the SPI Center can’t be beaten.
- To learn more about birding in this part of Texas, check out The World Birding Center. You can also visit Texas Parks & Wildlife to get a breakdown of the birds you are likely to see on a park-by-park basis.
South Padre Island Birding And Nature Center, 6801 Padre Blvd, South Padre Island, TX 78597; Phone: (956) 761-6801