Bird-watching grows in popularity on Texas Gulf Coast

Posted Saturday, May. 04, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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The people aboard Tommy Moore’s 24-foot-long boat couldn’t have picked a better morning to feel the soft, warm breeze of the saltwater bays and to scout the shorelines, oyster reef islands and open flats for creatures many of them were about to see for the first time.

With his boat at only a slight throttle, Moore turned his craft toward the open bay and then gave his passengers a brief description over a microphone of what they were about to experience. Everyone aboard grabbed each word with a pleasant appreciation of Moore’s extreme knowledge of one of nature’s most appealing forms of life — birds.

By wildlife officials’ counts, more than 500 species of birds have been documented along the Texas Gulf Coast. Normally, 30 to 60 species can be seen per trip with Moore, but it is not rare to see more than 100 species. After making a tour with Moore, I am convinced there is no better way to see a large majority of native and migratory birds this time of year.

Who are bird-watchers? They are you, me and just about anyone else who has ever stopped for a moment or longer to absorb a daily activity of a bird whether at a backyard feeder, on a camping, hunting or fishing trip, or on a dedicated bird-watching cruise.

Because of its tremendous attractions to tourists, birdwatching has become one of the nation’s leading outdoor activities and especially in Texas, where thousands of birds migrate each winter and spring to join native species before departing in late spring and early summer to return to their breeding grounds in the northern U.S. and Canada.

Moore aptly named his tour boat The Skimmer, perhaps because it drafts no more than 2 1/2 feet of water, which allows it to skim across the shallowest bays from Rockport to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. No other high-capacity boat can do that, Moore said.

As a wildlife photographer, I relish the opportunity to capture wildlife in its natural habitat. But along the same lines, a person does not have to be a wildlife photographer, researcher or tourist guide to appreciate watching birds in action, whether they are building their nests for a future generation of birds, competing among one another for dominance, gliding effortlessly just above the bay waters or perched on seaside docks.

As Moore piloted his boat parallel to a narrow reef, he began pointing out species that were using the reef as a resting place or on which to raise their young. One of the first to be sighted was a pair of oystercatchers, beautiful orange-billed birds that feed mainly on oysters. Between the adult pair was their small chick that appeared as a tiny cup of feathers.

As we neared the bays of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, an immature white-tailed hawk watched us pass by his perch atop a short post, just a short distance from a lone whooping crane feeding in the bay grass for his favorite menu — blue crabs. We would eventually see six other whooping cranes on the voyage.

Whooping cranes are most sought after by bird-watchers. The endangered species winters on the Texas coast and then returns to its nesting grounds in Canada. Moore often gets his boat to within 100 yards of the whooping cranes but at times gets his bird-watchers to within 10 yards of them.

Moore continued to point out many other species of birds along the coastal journey before finally beaching his boat on a small island being used as a rookery by an assortment of birds including roseatte spoonbills, great blue herons, great egrets, snowy egrets and many other species.

Moore takes more than 5,000 watchers out each summer and winter.

Indeed, birdwatching is something for everyone, from your backyard feeders and throughout Texas all the way to the Texas coast.

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