In my 45 years, I haven’t spent much time in Texas. I drove across it 25 years ago. And I did technically live there once. Though I wouldn’t say I did any actual living while I called it home. I went to basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. And despite what Bill Murray movies might have taught you about the military, it was not a situation conducive to painting the town red.
Also in my 45 years, I had never been birding. Not real birding, anyway. I spend a lot of time in nature. I hike, I kayak, I see birds. But I had never gone out with the explicit intent of tracking down and identifying birds. I wasn’t averse to the notion; I enjoy seeing wildlife. Maybe because I don’t have any friends who know what they're looking for, or I never invested in a guidebook. Whatever the reason, it was just something I never got into.
Last spring, I was invited to the Beaumont area to go birding. I jumped at the opportunity to experience a new activity in a new place. And it was magic.
The small Gulf Coast town seemingly hides in plain sight a stone’s throw from the Louisiana border. I knew it was once an oil boomtown, but knew little else. Over the course of three days, however, I discovered two primary things about the place. There is far more to Beaumont and its environs than oil. It possesses a rich cultural history and remarkable ethnic cuisine scene. And it is located smack dab in the middle of two massive migratory birding paths. For many flying up from South and Central America, it is literally their first landfall after a rather lengthy flight. For a few weeks every spring and fall, Beaumont, Texas is arguably the birding capital of North America, if not further afield.
Just like any other hobby, passion, or pursuit, birding has its own culture and lexicon, with a complete set of standards and rules, both written and unwritten. The people I was with were real birders. And I had a wonderful time learning the nuances of this world from them. It didn’t take long for me to know that I didn’t want to be a soulless “lister” – chasing numbers with no real love of the game. I was interested, however, in acquiring “lifers” or encountering birds that I have never before witnessed in my life.
As somebody who enjoys the outdoors, I was struck by the varied beauty of the Beaumont and Port Arthur areas. Wetlands, woods, and coast. All had something different to offer with regards to scenery as well as wildlife. The stop at the Smith Oaks Rookery hooked me hard. It was the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to a scene narrated by David Attenborough. “It is spring. And as the Roseate Spoonbills jostle for position in ever-increasing numbers within the rookery, passions ignite - in a number of ways. It’s the mating season in Southeast Texas.” It was incredible.
And because I will always be a 12-year old boy at heart, I repeatedly and with earnest, rattled off made up bird names that ranged from completely ridiculous to semi-salacious. “I do believe I hear the distinctive call of the Common Unencumbered White-Rumped Plover.” “Is that a Downtrodden Yellow-Throated Cave Swallow? Lifer!” “I could be wrong, and it wouldn’t be the first time - but tell me that’s not a Periwinkle Tufted Shrub Tit.” But it was all in good fun and luckily the group I was with appreciated my juvenile antics because at the end of the day, aren’t we all just a bunch of peeping toms with binoculars? Or at least using nature as an escape from adulting and the real world?
In the end, I witnessed close to 200 species of bird that were new to me. And you wouldn’t guess it from that tally, but I did other things while I was there. But that’s a story for another day. The big takeaway from this trip was how fascinating birding is. How much there is to learn, and somewhat surprisingly for me, how much fun it is. This little trip may have spoiled me. As I was told time and again by birder after birder, this wasn’t the norm and not to expect this quantity or quality of species just anywhere. But that’s okay, it just means I have to come back. It also means that it’s official - I’m a birder. And I blame it all on Beaumont.
About the Author: Adam Sawyer is an outdoor and travel writer, photographer, published author, guide, and public speaker based in the Pacific Northwest. His work has appeared in Northwest Travel & Life, 1859, 1889, Journey AAA, Sip Northwest, Backpacker, British Columbia, Canoe & Kayak, Portland Monthly, and Columbia River Gorge Magazines. He is the author of the guidebooks Hiking Waterfalls in Oregon, Best Outdoor Adventures Near Portland, 25 Hikes on Oregon’s Tillamook Coast, and Unique Eats and Eateries: Portland, Oregon.