Enjoy nature, but looking for something fun to do to get you out in it a bit more? Interested in exploring places around your hometown that you never knew existed? Up for an adventure? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, birding might just be the thing you’re looking for to jazz up your weekends and create some new memories.
So what on earth is birding? Also known as birdwatching, birding means observing wild birds in their natural habitats – by sight and by sound. To start, walk outside your home and just look around. You may see scavenging grackles, head-bobbing pigeons, bright red cardinals, or maybe a mockingbird or two. If you’ve done this, seen at least one bird, and identified it, congratulations! You’re on your way to being a birder.
Why birding? Here are just a few good reasons:
- It’s cheap. If you’ve ever needed to find an inexpensive activity for the whole family, this is it. You don’t have to spend any money, or you can spend just $20 and get a great field guide, or spend a bit more on a state or national park entry fee and make some incredible memories for just a few bucks.
- It’s a great family activity. Kids, parents, and grandparents can work together to spot and identify birds, and it teaches some great life lessons like patience, too!
- It’s a community. Birders help each other – it’s like one big giant family. As you start birding, you’ll run into folks that will tell you what they saw that was really amazing and where you can see it too – what’s better than that?
You may think birding requires expensive equipment like fancy binoculars, but there’s really just one thing you need to get started: a field guide listing the different types of birds you might see. That way, you can spot a bird and use the book to identify what you see. Here are some of our favorites:
Another thing that’s really helpful so you know where to see birds is a map of the areas where you can see the most birds. Texas Parks and Wildlife has a great set of maps that will help you figure out the best spot to go.
The mobile phone has been the next best thing that’s happened to birding since binoculars…there are tons of great resources that you can find in the way of apps and websites to enhance your birding experience. Some of the best include:
- Field Guide Apps: All of the guides we listed above have apps (the Peterson’s one isn’t just for Texas, though…it is more general), so you can identify birds, listen to bird calls, update your checklist, and do lots of other cool stuff with the flick of a finger. Other great ones include Audubon and iBird Pro. (FYI – these are expensive…it’s like buying a book)
- E-Bird: An incredible online resource from Cornell where you can record your sightings and share them with an entire online community that’s working together to find and ID birds all over the world. (free!)
Luckily, if you live in or around Houston, or anywhere on the Texas Gulf Coast for that matter, you’re right smack in the middle of one of the best places for birding in the entire world. The reason for that is in the winter, when it gets cold in the northern US and Canada, birds migrate south to go where it’s warm. Many of them cruise right through the Texas Gulf Coast and then head over to Mexico, Central America, or South America. And right now, it’s prime time for seeing these birds pass through. Mid-April to mid-May is quite possibly the best time of the year!
Some specific places to go and visit to see incredible birds include High Island, a famous part of Bolivar Peninsula for birding that even has a Tropical Birding Information Center; the Big Thicket Natural Preserve, where you can even get a special checklist of birds from the visitor center, and Anhuac National Wildlife Refuge, where you’ll see birds, and probably even some alligators!
When to go? The best time to see the most birds is in the early morning, so get ready to rise and shine before the sun rises (don’t forget to set the coffee pot the night before!). If you’re more of a night owl, never fear – at night you can see a whole slew of interesting birds…like owls! And if you’d rather be a beach bum during the day, you can saddle up to a sand dune and enjoy a whole host of shore birds.
And just remember – where birds are, probably so are the mosquitoes we’re so famous for. Don’t forget your mosquito repellent, and sunscreen is probably a good idea too.
Ready to take the next step? Get yourself a field guide and get out there. Happy birding!
Photos by Megan Neal, Houston Zoo Birds Keeper