Birding in Port O’Connor is “pretty good in any season and can be exceptional when the right conditions come together,according to master birder and local resident Petra Hockey. Viewing birds is generally better in the morning, much like fishing — though in this area, both activities are decent most of the time. Some places to view birds in town are at the Nature Park at Boggy Bayou, King Fisher Beach, the Little Jetties, as well as walking the residential areas, concentrating on undeveloped lots and gardens with native vegetation and mulberry trees. With a boat or kayak, one can bird watch along the Intracoastal Waterway, the Port O’Connor Paddling Trail, Sundown “Bird” Island, or the Matagorda Island Wildlife Management Area, which is noted in the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail for the more than 320 species of birds catalogued in the area. Recently, Hockey worked with avid Texas birder and author Brush Freeman to compile a complete list of birds ever documented in Calhoun County and the surrounding waters.
During the spring season, visitors have the opportunity to see many colorful birds that are traveling from their wintering grounds to their breeding grounds. The Port O’Connor peninsula and the barrier islands are prime locations as these birds seek the first available land, the first opportunity, to come down and rest after their long and possibly tumultuous journey across the Gulf of Mexico. Many leave the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico around sunset, flying through the night to arrive in the morning or early afternoon depending on the winds and weather. Incredible fallouts can be seen on Matagorda Island as flocks of birds arrive to rest and refuel.
The spring migration starts early in Port O’Connor and one of the first birds to arrive in early February are the Purple Martins, members of the swallow family. Martin houses can be seen in yards around town as residents anticipate being able to watch them nesting and raising their young. The second half of the month of April through the first week of May is the height of the spring migration with the highest number of species and individuals pushing through. Colorful neotropical migrants from the warbler, vireo, bunting, tanager, oriole, and grosbeak families can be seen at this time, often feeding on the local mulberries. By the end of May, most migrants will have moved through but some, like the Painted Bunting and the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, will stay to spend the summer and raise their broods.
Many species of birds are year-round residents of Port O’Connor. Among the local wading birds you will see Great Blue Herons and Tricolored Herons, Reddish, Snowy and Great Egrets, several ibis species and the Roseate Spoonbills, which are typically more numerous in summer and are quite a sight to see in flight as their pink feathers stand out against the bright blue skies. Gulls, terns and other water birds who make their homes near Port O’Connor include Laughing Gulls, Black Skimmers, Royal and Caspian Terns, Brown Pelicans, and Neotropic Cormorants.
Many shorebirds enjoy the beaches and marshes surrounding Port O’Connor year-round including Sanderlings, Ruddy Turnstones, Willets, Marbled Godwits, and plovers. Several species of dove also live in the area as well as other land birds such as mockingbirds, Loggerhead Shrikes, Ladder-backed Woodpeckers and Northern Cardinals. A year-round specialty of Port O’Connor is the White-tailed Hawk, a bird of prey that lives only in the Coastal Prairies.
Summer is the breeding season for most year round and summer resident birds, and up to 18 species nest on Sundown Island, an Audubon bird sanctuary off Port O’Connor. One of the largest breeding colonies of Brown Pelicans on the Texas coast exists on Sundown Island, locally known as “Bird Island.” Brown Pelicans, a species that was only removed from the Endangered Species list in 2009, are now plentiful in the area thanks in part to efforts of volunteers associated with this sanctuary, notably the late Chester Smith. These birds can be seen all around Port O’Connor, while in flight over the bays or feeding near the pier or jetties or simply hanging around the marinas. Other birds that nest on Sundown Island include the Red-winged Blackbird, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, and occasionally the American Oystercatcher.
The fall migration spreads out over a longer period of time than spring migration. Already in early July the first shorebirds arrive after completing their breeding season up north. All the way through October, most of the species that traveled north in spring will again move through on their way south or stay here for the winter. Of special note are the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds who stay in the area long enough to build up their fat reserves to continue their journey south across the Gulf of Mexico or along the coast on their way to Mexico. The height of their stay is usually during the first or second week of September, which makes Labor Day weekend a great opportunity to see these hummingbirds waiting in line at local residents’ feeders. The Piping Plover is an endangered species who can be found in the area from fall through early spring. These plovers start arriving in August and feed along the shores of Matagorda Island and even King Fisher Beach.
Many wintering birds begin to arrive in the Port O’Connor area in September and October. These birds include numerous species of ducks, gulls, and shorebirds such as Dunlins, dowitchers, plovers, Western and Least Sandpipers. Up to four species of geese and Sandhill Cranes can be spotted during this season as these avian Winter Texans will feed in the harvested fields on the way to Port O’Connor. Massive groups can be seen devouring leftovers in the rice fields along FM 1289. The Whooping Crane is of special interest to those seeking a rare bird sighting during the winter months. These endangered birds, the tallest and heaviest of North American birds, have had a particularly hard time finding food due to drought conditions negatively affecting their food supply of crabs. During the winter months, the number of birds of prey increases in the region. Among the species visitors might find are Peregrine Falcons, American Kestrels, Merlins, as well as Cooper’s Hawks and Ospreys.
In every season of the year, Port O’Connor provides the opportunity to enjoy the presence of avian wildlife. Several species of local, breeding and migrating birds can be found here throughout the year, making this a notable location for a birdwatching excursion.