In touch with nature: Texas Coast enters fall migration season

SOUTH PADRE ISLAND — As summer moves closer to its end and cooler weather draws near, many birds are starting to make their journey from the north to the south.

Now through November, birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts are able to view several species of migratory birds traveling through the Laguna Madre Bay and Gulf of Mexico.

With its five-story viewing tower, viewing blinds and more than 3,000 feet of boardwalks, the South Padre Island Birding, Nature Center and Alligator Sanctuary allows for scenic exploration and viewing of wildlife.

According to naturalist educator Javier Gonzalez, the area’s 50-acres of coastal wetlands are an immensely valuable pit stop for migratory birds, especially for those that have some of the longest and most difficult journeys.

Gonzalez said several of the migratory birds visiting the area travel from summer nesting ranges from as far north as Northern Canada, Alaska and the Arctic Tundra. He said the summers in those latitudes provide an abundance of nesting sites, food and daylight.

“We’re starting to see more and more species of birds utilizing these flats as a resting area,” Gonzalez said. “Some of them are going to be continuing on all the way to South America and this is a very important resting site for them. They come here, gather their energy for a few days and keep on going.”

Some migratory shorebirds that visit the SPI South Padre Island Birding, Nature Center and Alligator Sanctuary include — least terns, sanderlings, western sandpipers, piping plovers, black-bellied plovers, short-billed dowitchers, marbled godwits and ruddy turnstones.

“These guys are flying thousands of miles to be here,” Gonzalez said. “So these habitats are extremely important.”

According to Gonzalez, sometimes piping plovers can be seen with little bands on their legs that wildlife biologists have put on them to have a better understanding of their migration and learn how old the birds can get.

“The ones that I’ve reported, when I get a good enough picture of them, most of them are coming from the midwest and the last one I reported came from North Dakota where it nested by a river up there,” he said.

Gonzalez said plovers’ large eyes allow them to scan the mudflats.

“Once they spot their food, they’ll quickly run after it so they do a lot of stop, run,” he said. “They like to eat worms that are right on the surface and they’ll slurp them up like spaghetti.”

According to Gonzalez, ruddy turnstones have a thick end of their bill that’s used to flip around rocks and shells to look for food.

“Ruddy turnstones are pretty much strictly coastal here in the winter time so if you want to see one you have to come to the coast,” he said. “Sometimes I will see them out here tossing around rocks and shells and picking up the little invertebrates that are hiding under them.”

Marbled godwits have bills longer than short-billed dowitchers and long legs that enable them to feed in tide water that’s deep for other shorebirds.

“That bill cuts through the sand like a hot butter knife,” Gonzalez said of the marbled godwits. “They probe way down deep in there for marine invertebrates and worms.”

Gonzalez said this is a great time of year in this area because not only are people able to see migrating birds, but also several young birds that were born in the summer and are starting to explore the Texas Coast.

The nonprofit is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is located at 6801 Padre Blvd. Due to COVID-19, masks are required at all times when inside the facility’s visitor center and on the boardwalk when 6 feet social distancing is not possible.

For more information about the SPI Island Birding, Nature Center and Alligator Sanctuary, visit www.spibirding.com.