By Debbie Ferrell-Smith
Texas is home for almost 600 different bird species. More birds call this state home at some point during the year than any other state in North America. Among the long list of birds that either reside or migrate through Texas are the waders. Many reside here throughout the long hot summer and stay throughout the winter. Some migrate back to Texas in late fall to avoid the harsh winters in the north and others only stay for the summer and head south to their winter homes. Whether they are year round residents or migrants, waders are some of the most colorful and interesting birds that Texas has to offer.
Roseate Spoonbills, Reddish Egrets, Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons are among the larger waders that can be seen on the coastal waters of the gulf. These birds have a strong common denominator; they were almost eradicated due to their colorful plumes in the 19th century. It would take five birds to provide only one ounce of plumes. Rookeries were invaded at an extremely high cost, as both adult and young were either killed or left to die in the hot Texas sun. Today these birds have made a strong come back thanks to the Audubon Society who helped pass legislation to make hunting the beautiful creatures illegal.
While Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets and Reddish Egrets call Costal Texas their home, in the winter the majority of Roseate Spoonbills prefer to migrate to South America and Chile to spend their winter months. Spoonbills, also called Texas Flamingo's by many in the lonestar state, are the most colorful of the long legged waders. First year birds wear a pastel pink and have feathers on their heads, while adult Spoonbills sport that flaming pink color in breeding season that they are known for. The adults loose the soft downy head feathers to show a leathery looking baldhead.
Least Bitterns, Green Herons, Black-Crowned Night Herons, and Cattle Egrets make up some of the smaller waders seen along the Texas Coast. Black-Crown Night Herons can be a challenge as they are not seen as frequently during the day except during the nesting season when work building nest and feeding babies requires them to be out and about. These birds prefer the cooler regions of the north during breeding season, but once fall arrives these birds begin their migration back to the Coast. Green Herons on the other hand can be found easily in the summer months throughout most of Texas. They prefer wooded habitat with marshes like those found at Brazos Bend State Park This state park is one of the better-known parks for providing those seeking a view of nature a true glimpse of it. Only 40 minutes from the coast, this park has both the best viewing of migrating songbirds and wetland birds. Least Bitterns, the smallest of the herons, are quite secretive and can be difficult to find among the long reeds in their marsh habitat. But viewing them can be a treat in its self. Their acrobatic maneuvers while walking on and among the reeds will make anyone marvel at their skill and laugh at their comic poses. Least Bitterns leave Texas in the winter months to enjoy the warmer climate south of the border. The Cattle Egret migrated here from South Africa and the first confirmed sighting in Texas was in 1955 on Mustang Island located in the southern part of the Texas Coast. These birds are less dependent on water to feed and have filled a niche that other waders have not. Cattle Egrets feed on land and are often seen in fields not only following cattle but also tractors and other field equipment. There is some concern however that the Cattle Egret is taking up breeding space that other native waders might be in need of. These birds are quite plain in non-breeding plumage but once you see one during breeding season you will never dismiss them as common again.
These birds all nest along the Texas Coast. Colorful breeding plumes decorate their bodies beginning in some birds as early as February. By March breeding season is well underway and nesting is soon to follow. A wonderful place to view a rookery is at Boy Scout Woods, which is maintained by the Houston Audubon Society. This site is located just south east of Houston at High Island. The best times to visit the rookery begin in May and continue into June.
Whenever you visit Texas you can be assured that the waders will be there to greet you whether in their best dress of spring or their less colorful winter colors. Their habits will provide a unique viewing experience for all. You maybe privileged to view a Great Blue Heron passing a stick to mate as part of the nest building ritual or the Reddish Egrets frenzied dance in hot pursuit of its meal. Remember while you watch these wonderful waders, they are truly a gift to be thankful for.
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