With its location on the central migration flyway and over 268,000 square miles of diverse habitats that include coastal islands and estuaries, plains, prairies, deserts, plateaus, subtropical zones, and more, Texas is a birder’s dream destination. More than 600 bird species have been recorded in Texas, making it an ideal location for compiling a life list. However, with so many birds and birding hotspots to choose from, planning a birding trip to Texas can be daunting.
Bird identification is part of the joy of birding, but it isn’t always easy. From telling Mottled Ducks apart from American Black Ducks apart to figuring out what type of Tern you just saw a the beach, bird identification can definitely be tough.
Birds to Watch in Texas
Knowing the birds to watch for in Texas can help birders decide where to go to enjoy the best of Texas birding, whether they are interested in common Texas birds, regional specialties, or the most unusual of the state’s feathered residents.
Bird identification when it comes to Sparrows can be hard. The Sparrows category is quite large. One species of Sparrow can have four, or five, or six, or even more different plumages and sub species. Here are the basics:
First of all, a Sparrow will be more brown overall, and will have various amounts of streaks and/or spots all over its body.
The bill size will vary a little bit but you can differentiate Sparrow bills from Warbler bills easily! Warblers will have usually shorter, but much slimmer and more sharp bills. Sparrows will have a short and stubby bill, usually a good size, starting thick at the base, and tapering down at a rapid pace to a sharp point at the end.
One more thing to use for recognizing Sparrows in the field is the tail length. Generally, a Sparrow is going to have a longer tail than most other birds their size.
Sparrows can be tricky in the field. Some are very distinctive and some are discreet, while some look like very similar to each other.
Telling some Thrushes apart is one of the hardest things to do in bird identification. Thrushes are a very unique group of birds, but telling some Thrushes apart from each other can be tough.
Thrushes belong to the family Turdidae which includes other birds such as the Eastern Bluebird and Townsend’s Solitaire. Thrush List:
- Bicknell’s Thrush: The Bicknell’s Thrush is very similar to the Gray-cheeked Thrush. The best way to tell these two thrushes apart in the field is by their differing songs.
- Wood Thrush: The most brightly colored Thrush besides the Varied, the Wood Thrush has the thickest bill among Thrushes and has dark spotting on the breast that continues down the flanks
- Hermit Thrush: A reddish tail makes it easy to tell this Thrush apart from the others.
- Gray-cheeked Thrush: Of all Thrushes, the Gray-cheeked goes the farthest north. No eye-ring and overall dully colored.
- Swainson’s Thrush: An obvious eye-ring and buffy face set the Swainson’s Thrush apart from others.
- Varied Thrush: The most unique thrush, the Varied Thrush has orange and navy blue coloring.
Warblers are an interesting group of birds and are fun in terms of bird identification. There are several main things that you can use to recognize a Warbler while in the field.
One thing is too look at size. A warbler will usually be the same size as a Titmouse, and slightly bigger than a Chickadee. Size comparison is a vital tool to use for birding.
A second thing to notice is behavior of the bird. Warblers are typically extremely energetic. They move from one leaf to another foraging for insects or berries in a very hyper-active style. Warblers are notorious for giving birders the slip since they move so fast.
One more tool to use to recognize Warblers is color. On average, Warblers are very bright and colorful. Usually showing a lot of yellow, green, and blue. Even in fall plumage, many warblers still show lots of color.
These simple things will help you to pick out a Warbler from all the other birds while in the field!
Raptors is another name for “birds of prey.” Hawks, Eagles, Falcons, and others; are undoubtedly a unique group of birds and a very excited subject to study, photograph, or draw.
You can find Raptors in many places; it depends on the habitat preferences of the species. Red-shouldered Hawks like deciduous forests, Rough-legged Hawks prefer to hunt in exposed Corn fields, and Ospreys hunt primarily from Oceans, Lakes, and large Ponds.
Raptors are divided into five families:
- Accipitridae: Hawks, Eagles, Buzzards, Harriers, Kites, and Old World Vultures.
- Pandionidae: Osprey.
- Sagittariidae: The Secretary Bird.
- Falconidae: Falcons and Caracaras
- Cathartidae: New World Vultures, and Condors.
Identifying Raptors in the field can range from easy, to medium, to extremely difficult. Raptors go through many phases of plumage. There are dark-morphs, light-morphs, complete white-morphs (leucism) and many other odd plumages.
However, the basics of recognizing a Raptor in the field are:
- Size: Most Raptors will be one of the biggest birds in the area. Some are much smaller like Falcons.
- Shape: Each genus of Raptor can have a unique shape. Birds in the genus “Buteo” have a certain shape. The most common Buteo in the U.S. is the Red-tailed Hawk.
- Calls: Raptors don’t call as often as other birds, but when they do, it is easily recognizable from any other sound in the area.
Sandpipers and Plovers
The majority of Sandpipers and Plovers can be hard to identify especially at a distance, but there are few species like this Ruddy Turnstone that really stand out in a crowd.
We have decided to break the shorebirds up into two parts since the group of Charadriiformes includes over 350 species.
Sandpipers and Plovers make up a large portion of birds seen at the beach as well as lakes and ponds. They both have long legs in comparison to their body so they can forage in sand and water without getting their body dirty.
Some shorebirds like this Sanderling are very tiny, while others like American Oystercatchers are much bigger and taller.
A bird’s bill and leg length are made according to their diet. Oystercatchers need a bigger and more hefty bill than others because of their diet, while a Sanderling only requires a small bill and shorter legs.
You can find large flocks of Sandpipers and Plovers hanging out with Gulls and Terns that roost on the beach. Some types of Sandpipers and Plovers will stick together like Semipalmated Plovers, while others with less numbers in their group might spread out and forage on their own.
Plovers typically have a thicker bill than Sandpipers, but they are also more distinctive.
Plovers like this Black-bellied Plover are especially easy to identify when they are in breeding plumage.
Gulls and Terns
Gulls and Terns are also part of the group called “shorebirds.” Although many people think about Sandpipers and Plovers when they think about shorebirds, there are over 350 species that are classified as shorebirds.
Terns have a very distinctive shape especially when flying. Terns have sharp pointed wings with a short sharp-edged tail and are equipped with bills that can catch fish easily. Folding their wings close to their body and plunging head first into the water is their typical way of foraging.
Gulls have a slightly different build and shape. Their wings are more broad and their tail not as sharp edged. They carry more heavy bills and bigger legs and feet. Gulls’ foraging technique relies somewhat on stealing food from other birds. Gulls will steal fish from Terns and any other smaller bird that they can pick on. Although Gulls do their share of honest foraging, a large portion is made up of snatching food from more skilled hunters.
Many Gulls have a black hood and black wings like the Laughing Gull pictured above. There are about 45 species of Gull in the world, are they are known as one of the hardest groups of birds to identify in the world.
Nuthatches are by far one of my favorite types of birds. The way they climb up and down trees, make their calls, and forage for food has made this group of birds a favorite for many.
There are four species of Nuthatches:
The Brown-headed Nuthatch is only found in the South-east of the United States, and is easily identifiable by its brown head. Also, the Brown-headed Nuthatch’s squeaky toy call is a tool to make this bird an easy ID.
Pygmy Nuthatches are the smallest birds of the Nuthatch family. They are the Brown-headed Nuthatch are the most similar looking Nuthatches, but they are easily distinguishable from each other by Pygmy’s more grayish appearance as well as their size difference. Also, Pygmy Nuthatch’s range does not extend or overlap with the range of the Brown-headed Nuthatch. Pygmy Nuthatches are generally seen in the West, while Brown-headed Nuthatches are only seen in the South-east.
Red-breasted Nuthatches can be seen throughout all of the United States; however, the entire nation does not have this species year-round. These Nuthatches can be easily identified by the stripes that they have on their heads, their red breast, and their white throats.
White-breasted Nuthatches are common throughout the United States, but have a few spots where they aren’t usually seen. These Nuthatches have a white overall color with a black cap. They also have bluish wings and backs.
What is the Fastest Bird in Texas?
The fastest bird in Texas (and the world) is the Peregrine Falcon, found all around the world except Antarctica. When they are in their hunting dive, Peregrines can reach speeds of up to 240 MPH. The 14-18 inch raptor flies at around 30 MPH but reaches the fast speeds when diving. With their extreme speed, Peregrines usually catch their prey in mid-air.
They are primarily found in the Trans-Pecos region of Texas, including Big Bend National Park and the Chisos, Davis, and Guadalupe mountain ranges. The Peregrine Falcon nests on most climatic zones’ coasts, mountains, and canyons, wherever it can find a suitable high cliff ledge for its eyrie (nest site).