Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail
The Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail is a state-designated system of trails, bird sanctuaries, and nature preserves along the entire length of the Texas Gulf Coast in the United States. As the state of Texas hosts more bird species than any other in the U.S. The trail system offers some of the most unusual opportunities for bird-watching in the world. The "trail" is actually 43 separate hiking and driving trails that include 308 birding sites. The sites themselves feature a variety of viewing opportunities with boardwalks, observation decks, and other amenities. The trails boast more than 450 bird species. The trail system is managed by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department as part of the Great Texas Wildlife Trails which also include the Heart of Texas Wildlife Trail, the Panhandle Plains Wildlife Trail, and the Prairies and Pineywoods Wildlife Trail.
Wetlands at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge looking out from the 40-foot observation tower.
Apart from bird watching the trail system includes many nature preserves which feature a wide variety of wildlife. In addition the various sites cover many types of natural terrain and flora including forests, marshes, and beaches.
This trail network was the first of its kind in the U.S. though many states have since followed. The trail system remains the nation's largest. One of the most well-known locations along the trail system is the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, which holds the winter home of the only natural flock of whooping cranes in the world.
The Texas coast has been popular among bird watchers in the United States for decades. Located where the Central Flyway meets the Gulf coast and the Mississippi Flyway, the region sees a large number of migrants; in addition, the southern part of the Texas coast is far enough south to host a number of tropical species. A 1991 American Birding Association (ABA) study by Roland Wauer showed that Texas was the top bird watching destination in the United States for its members. In 1993 the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department began a $1.5 million project to develop public and private resources to utilize as bird sanctuaries and observation sites. The plan and the concept were largely developed by Ted Eubanks and Madge Lindsay. Site improvements included trail markers, trail development, boardwalks, observation stations, and many others. The goal was both to encourage environmental protection and to establish a tourism network that would benefit businesses throughout the Texas Gulf Coast region catering to ecotourists.
The Central Coast section of the trail network was opened in 1994 with more than 95 sites. The other sections opened soon afterward. The trail system was completed in 2000. Markers featuring a logo with a black skimmer are present on each of the viewing sites. Soon other wildlife trail networks were developed in other parts of Texas, and other states established their own wildlife trail systems patterned after the Texas model.
Sites along the trail systems are today popular among birding enthusiasts, both domestic and international. Events such as the state's Great Texas Birding Classic continue to build interest in the trails among nature lovers.
The region covered by the trail network is part of the Gulf Coastal Plains. With annual rainfall averages ranging from about 20 to 58 inches, this is a nearly level, drained plain dissected by streams and rivers flowing into estuaries and marshes. Windblown sands and dunes, grasslands, oak mottes and salt marshes make up the seaward areas.
The region stretches from the Piney Woods of East Texas to the Texas Coastal Prairies that dominate the majority of the coast south of Houston. The Piney Woods area features groves of pine and other hardwood trees such as oak, magnolia, and American Sweet Gum. This wooded area which has supported Texas lumber industry since the 19th century is now considered one of the most critically endangered ecosystems in the world. These woodland areas of the trail network stretch from the Big Thicket area in the east to Sam Houston National Forest in the west, with pockets of woodlands stretching down into the area around Galveston Bay near Houston.
The Prairie regions feature a variety of grass types, particularly Indiangrass, Big Bluestem, Little bluestem, and Switchgrass. The grasslands around the Laguna Madre near Corpus Christi are considered some of the most important.
Parts of extreme South Texas around Brownsville and the Rio Grande feature forests of Sabal Palm and Texas Ebony. These forests, once widespread in the region, were mostly cleared during the 1900s though some clusters, particularly the Sabal Palm Audubon Center and Sanctuary, remain. The areas around Zapata and Laredo, which though significantly inland are considered part of the "coastal" trail system, feature a semi-arid climate as they lie near the eastern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert. Scrub vegetation dominates the area with the Rio Grande and lakes supporting substantial wildlife diversity.
The coastline features numerous bays and lakes including Sabine Lake, Galveston Bay, Matagorda Bay, San Antonio Bay, Copano Bay, Corpus Christi Bay, Baffin Bay, and the Laguna Madre.
Snow Geese over the wetlands of Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge
Typical varieties of birds along the length of the system include ducks, geese, and seagulls with many other species found in particular locations. The endangered Whooping Cranes that winter in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge are among the most famous. The Black Skimmer, adopted as a symbol of the trail system, can be found throughout almost the entire coastline.
Apart from the many varieties of bird species many other types of animals can be found along the trails. American alligators, bobcats, coyotes, and nutria are common in areas of the Upper Coast. Collared Peccaries, the Texas spiny lizard, and the Texas Indigo Snake can be found further south. In the Central Coast the Western Cottonmouth snake is prominent, not to mention dolphins and other marine mammals along the Gulf. Nine-banded Armadillos and White-tailed deer can be seen throughout. The Rio Grande Valley is particularly known for the many varieties of butterflies that inhabit the area (celebrated by the annual Texas Butterfly Festival in Mission). Resident species include the Julia, Zebra, Mexican Bluewing, and White Peacock.
For the Texas Parks & Wildlife Official Site, click on the 'Read More' button below. I have already set the landing page for Upper Texas Coast Birding Trails, Galveston, Texas. All nine Great Texas Wildlife Trail maps are available at sites throughout Texas or can be ordered online. However, the site does have all the information to guide you to all locations.