Thousands flock to upper Texas coast birding festival
In the middle of March, as daytime temperatures climb to the upper 60s and warm Gulf breezes intensify, Galveston wetlands, grasslands, ponds and bays become the stage for one of nature’s astonishing dramas — spring migration.
For about six weeks in March and April, thousands of birds, including tanagers, warblers, flycatchers, waterthrush, orioles, vireos and buntings, will migrate through the area, which serves as a recuperative stopover on their rigorous journey from the tropics northward.
About 350 species of birds migrate long distances, usually along well-documented migratory pathways, according to the National Audubon Society.
“Birds migrate from North America to the tropics in the fall and then back in the spring,” said Jim Stevenson, a local ornithologist. “The return trip takes a huge number of them right through the upper Texas coast. In mid-March, we’ll start to see shorebirds and songbirds arriving. Some species fly up the coastline and others come directly across the Gulf; both groups converge here before heading north.”
In celebration of this natural phenomenon, the Galveston Island Nature Tourism Council organizes the annual FeatherFest, a six-day birding festival. This year, FeatherFest is from April 17-22.
“Participants can learn about birds, sea turtles, butterflies and dragonflies,” said Julie Ann Brown, council director. “We have field trips by bus, boat and kayak, and more than 100 activities designed for different skill levels in both birding and photography.”
FeatherFest also has free activities, including three Birds of Prey Raptor Shows and a film called “The Lost Bird Project.” The vendor area is open to everyone and visitors can try out binoculars, spotting scopes and camera equipment or shop for nature-inspired items.
Galveston’s reputation as a birding site is well known. In 2017, participants spotted 224 bird species during FeatherFest.
Visitors travel to Galveston and Bolivar Peninsula from all around the United States and Canada to participate in the event, Stevenson said.
“Recently, we had a Tamaulipas crow and last year, we had a white-crowned pigeon, the first accepted record for one in Texas,” he said.
As the planet warms, other tropical species such as flamingos are appearing locally, Stevenson said.
In addition to migrating visitors, Galveston is home to many birds year-round. Among them are brown pelicans, roseate spoonbills, herons and egrets, white ibis, mottled ducks, crested caracara, laughing gulls, black skimmers and various woodpeckers, owls and cardinals.
Why do birds migrate over thousands of miles flying along the same routes each year? It’s not completely understood. Migration may be triggered by a combination of changes in day length, lower temperature, changes in the food available and also there may be a genetic component. Scientists believe birds navigate by the stars and by sensing the Earth’s magnetic field. Much of this phenomenon is still a mystery and one FeatherFest continues to honor as volunteers work to safeguard and build habitat for feathered friends.
This year, the festival is dedicated to the memory of the Eskimo curlew, a bird now classified as “possibly extinct.” It was last seen on Galveston Island in the early 1960s by local birder Victor Emanuel, but there have been no sightings since then.
“What makes it special is our 200 enthusiastic volunteers who truly enjoy showing off the wonderful natural assets of the area,” Brown said.
“Participants always tell us that this is the friendliest festival around.”