Birders’ delight: Drought, fires pushing western birds to Island, coast

HARLINGEN — Rare western birds far from of their normal ranges are making migratory pit stops on South Padre Island.

Birders at the South Padre Island Birding, Nature Center and Alligator Sanctuary are being treated to some very unusual sightings, including the painted redstart, Scott’s oriole, hermit warbler, broad-billed and calliope hummingbirds, and the Say’s phoebe.

Many of these species are hundreds or, in some cases, more than a thousand miles outside their usual ranges.

“They’re all very rare on the gulf coast,” Javi Gonzalez, naturalist-educator at the  birding center, said Sunday. “There are very few records of them on the Island or the coast.”

Most of these western birds migrate to Central and South America each year in the fall via flyways far to the west. These north-south routes are located either side of the Rocky Mountains or even along the Pacific coast.

Gonzalez believes the birds have adapted a more eastern approach due to fire and drought out west.

“More than likely its due to the situation over in the west, like fires and drought that the west has been suffering from,” he said. “Birds are very sensitive to the environment, so any changes in the air quality or things like the availability of food in their migration route, due to a drought or anything like that, will drive them elsewhere.”

“I think that’s what’s causing them to come east a bit more,” he added. “They’re pretty much out of their range right now.”

While drought earlier this year in the Rio Grande Valley was eliminated by heavy rainfall, including precipitation dumped by Hurricane Hanna, in much of West Texas and beyond very dry conditions persist.

Courtesy Photo
Birders at the South Padre Island Birding, Nature Center and Alligator Sanctuary are being treated to some very unusual sightings, including the hermit warbler. Experts say these birds adapted a more eastern migration approach due to fire and drought out west.

From the Panhandle south in Texas, and in eight to 10 states to the west, the region’s drought ranges from moderate to severe and even exceptional drought conditions.

The birding center was closed earlier this year due to COVID-19 restrictions and is gradually normalizing operations.

In fact, the birding center has reinstated its popular birding tours, which are scheduled Thursdays and Fridays between 9 and 11 a.m.

“We’re doing things a bit differently than we used to,” Gonzalez said. “Instead of people showing up on the day and joining us, we’re having people register online because we have to limit the number of participants — we’re at 10 participants.”

“It’s good because as we limit the number, we can focus more with the people, because we’re used to having 20-plus and that’s sometimes a little too much, but with a limited number its more enjoyable for everybody,” Gonzalez said.

Fees for the birding tours are in addition to admission charges, and are $7 for teens 13 to 18 and seniors, and $8 for adults. Reservations can be made on the center’s website at .

There is a strong likelihood that birders will be able to record sightings of some of these rare western birds along the birding center’s boardwalks.

“It’s pretty outstanding how they can just re-route their way and try a different way,” Gonzales said. “But it’s really outside of their norm, and I’m sure they go through lots of hardships in trying to find a new route out of their normal path.”

If you go 

WHAT: Rare western bird species

WHERE: South Padre Island Birding, Nature Center and Alligator Sanctuary, 6801 Padre Blvd.

WHEN: The nature center is open daily between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

TOURS: Guided birding tours are offered by registration only Thursdays and Fridays from 9 to 11 a.m.

RULES: Masks are required inside the birding center and on boardwalks whenever people are closer than six feet apart