FLOCKING TO A BIRDERS' PARADISE
by Paris Permenter and John Bigley.
Photograph courtesy of Permenter & Bigley
"There's a buff-belly at the feeder!"
Within seconds, the tiny hummingbird was under careful scrutiny by 30 pairs of eyes, all aided by high-powered binoculars and zoom lenses. Field guides appeared from a number of pockets as the birders sought to confirm the sighting. Soon smiles broke out among the crowd-this was a buff-bellied, after all. The trip to Rockport, [Texas], which some of the group had made from surrounding states, was a success.
This scene is repeated time and time again during the fall hummingbird migration through the Coastal Bend and particularly Rockport. During August and September, thousands of tiny hummers from as far as Canada use this coastal community as a filling station, a place to stop and refuel before the arduous, nonstop journey over the Gulf of Mexico on their way to warmer climes in Mexico and Central and South America. Along with the clouds of tiny birds come flocks of birders. Binoculars in hand, they migrate to Rockport in pursuit of several hummingbird species, hoping to add another name to their life-list of identified birds.
The Rockport-Fulton area has long been known as a birders¹ paradise. Connie Hagar, amateur ornithologist and a legend in this coastal village, focused the eyes (and binoculars) of the birdwatching community on the Coastal bend. She moved to Rockport in 1935 and for 31/2 decades chronicled the comings and goings of hundreds of species. Ever since, birders have flocked to Rockport for a look at everything from whooping cranes to painted buntings.
During the fall migration, they come to see the hummingbirds, an annual pilgrimage that has become a festival-the Hummer/Bird Celebration. The Coastal Bend Audubon Society together with the neighboring communities of Rockport and Fulton have come together to host the celebration. At the festival, you can attend workshops such as "Birding for Beginners," "Shorebird Identification," and "Creating Backyard Habitats." To help with bird identification and to provide some background on the migrating species, videotape presentations run nonstop at the center. Booths sell everything from hummingbird feeders to T-shirts featuring the tiny guests.
But the high points of the festival are the Audubon-guided bus tours with stops at private homes and fishing camps in Bayside and surrounding communities, some sites with 10 or more feeders. Buzzing like huge bees, the hummers congregate in swarms of as many as 100 to 200 birds. Because they are concentrating on feeding, you are able to walk very near. The hungry hummers are not afraid of a quiet, slow-moving audience.
The bus tours also stop at other birding sites on the coastal grasslands for a look at other migratory species. Your guide will identify birds, furnish background information on the birds you are watching, and set up high-powered viewing scopes. Rockport has over 500 species on record, including a large number of shorebirds.
Although the Hummer/Bird Celebration recognizes all of Rockport's feathered friends, it's the tiny hummer who steals the show. In recent years the city has made a concerted effort to attract the hummers, sponsoring workshops and classes for would-be hosts. As a result, citizens have planted bushes and vines to attract the migrators to backyard habitats.
The hummers are fast-moving, but because of the large number in Rockport during migration, they're easy to spot. Rockport is located on the Central Flyway, a bird highway that brings migrators from Canada, through Montana, and over the Central states on their way to Mexico. Rockport also receives a few strays from the Mississippi Flyway, a combination that makes the area a hummer hotspot.
Even if you can't make it to Rockport for the Hummer/Bird Celebration, you're heading into a birding paradise no matter what the season. The winter and spring are prime viewing months, with up to 200 species a day spotted during spring migration. The winter brings many birders to the area for a look at the magnificent whooping crane, a bird that stands five feet tall and winters in the marshy lands near the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.
The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (45 min. northeast of Rockport via Hwy. 35, 512-286-3559; admission fee) is a protected area known primarily for whooping cranes. The Visitors Center features mounted specimens of whoopers from egg to adulthood, along with films on the birds' behavior and migration. Across from the Visitors Center, you'll find an alligator pond with plenty of toothy specimens, and several nearby hiking trails invite you to take a (careful) walk in the wildlife-filled area. The refuge is also home to shrew, armadillo, coyote, jackrabbit, red wolf, gray fox, ringtail, raccoon, coati, mink, weasel, badger, wild boar, peccary, deer, mountain lion, and bobcat. Don't be surprised to see dolphins in the waters of the refuge and all along the Gulf coast and bays. The playful mammals are a common sight, especially near boats.
The refuge also has a whooping crane viewing platform, but you'll still be some distance from the birds. The best look awaits aboard one of the whooping-crane tours, the cream of which is Captain Ted's Whooping Crane Tour, operating from November through March. Aboard the M.V. Skimmer (800-338-4551; admission fee), specially designed for the very shallow waters of the bay, you'll cruise within yards of the whooping-crane families. If you're too late for the whoopers, you can take a rookery tour aboard the Skimmer from April through June to see the largest reddish egret rookery in the world.
Of course, this coastal community is more than a birding hotspot-it's a romantic hotspot as well. Walk on sands at Rockport Beach Park (off TX 35; admission fee) along more than a mile of beach and shop for local artwork at the Rockport Center for the Arts (Navigation Circle, in town, 512-729-5519; free). Just down the street from the Art Center, you'll find the Texas Maritime Museum (1202 Navigation Circle,512-729-6644; admission fee), which covers maritime history from the Spanish shipwrecks off the Gulf coast to the offshore oil industry. You'll find exhibits on shipbuilding, small boat building, and Texans of the Sea.
When you visit Rockport, you're sure to find the area filled with snowbirds of both the RV and feathered varieties. Rockport and its many visitors are more than happy to admit that this place "is for the birds!"
When You Get There...
Getting There: Rockport is located 31 miles northeast of Corpus Christi on Highway 35.
Dining: The Skimmer is docked next to the Sanddollar Restaurant (109 N. Fulton Rd., 512-729-8909), one of Rockport's many excellent seafood establishments. This waterfront restaurant boasts a wonderful view of the Aransas Bay and serves seafood so fresh they swear it slept in the sea the night before! You'll also find fresh Gulf shrimp at one of our favorite restaurants in the state: the Boiling Pot (Fulton Beach Rd., 512-729-6972), a rollicking place with spicy Cajun shrimp and crab served on your tablecloth of white butcher paper. It's a roll-up-your-sleeves kind of place that's always busy.
Where to Stay: Rockport has a huge selection of accommodations, ranging from fishing cottages to elegantly furnished condominiums. Because of the large number of Winter Texans who call Rockport home during the cooler months up North, there are many RV and trailer parks and condominiums that lease by the day, week, or month. For a brochure listing all of Rockport-Fulton's varied lodgings, call the Chamber of Commerce office at 800-242-0071 or 800-826-6441.
One of our favorite places to stay is Key Allegro (1798 Bayshore Dr., just over Key Allegro Bridge on Fulton Beach Rd., 512- 729-2333 or 800-348-1627). This small island is linked to Rockport by an arched bridge. The lovely drive here is your first hint at the elegant accommodations awaiting visitors in this area. Nicely appointed condominium units and upscale homes located on the water's edge afford beautiful views of Rockport's fishing vessels heading out for the day's catch. Rental homes and condominiums are available by the day or week.
For B&B accommodations, check out The Blue Heron Inn (801 Patton St., 512-729-7526). Overlooking Little Bay, the inn features four guest rooms decorated with local artwork. Another popular B&B is Anthony's by the Sea (732 S. Pearl St., 800-460-2557). This inn includes a honeymoon suite and guest houses equipped with a full kitchen.
Festivals: Rockport is a festive city, and it shows. Besides the Hummer/Bird Celebration, you'll find festivals year-round. Rockport Seafair is held the weekend before Columbus Day, the Mexican-themed Fiesta En La Playa is celebrated every Labor Day weekend, the Rockport Art Festival marks the Fourth of July weekend, and the Fulton Oysterfest livens up the first weekend of March. During the winter months, special events are planned regularly for the many RV residents, including fishing and horseshoe tournaments, and several arts and crafts shows.
For More Information: For more on the Hummer/Bird Celebration, call the Rockport/Fulton Area Chamber of Commerce at 800-242-0071.
From Texas Getaways For Two, by Paris Permenter and John Bigley. © 1996 by Paris Permenter and John Bigley. Excerpted by arrangement with Two Lane Press. $14.95. Available by mail order, call 800-877-3119.