Bird watchers come to roost in Texas Matagorda County

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You wont bump into many people in Matagorda County on the Gulf coast of Texas, but you will find plenty of birds. Youll see so many, in fact, that this sparsely populated area, about 80 miles south of Houston, has become a major travel destination for serious birdwatchers.

Situated smack in the middle of the Atlantic flyway, the path followed by birds migrating between Central and South America and the U.S. and Canada, Matagorda has ranked No. 1 for the last eight years in the Audubon Societys Christmas Bird Count.  That means there have been more bird species (246 this year, an all-time record) spotted here in one day eight years in a row than in any other place in the country. 

Everywhere you go on this coastal prairie, youll see birds. Along highways, red-tailed hawks; on the beach, white and brown pelicans; in the coastal marshes, herons; on the river, cormorants; and in the fields and woods, hummingbirds, woodpeckers and warblers.

The first stop for birders should be the new, 35-acre Matagorda County Birding Nature Center. Here youll find interpretive trails, butterfly and hummingbird gardens and a boat dock for river tours. For information, call (979) 245-3336. 

Next stop is the Nature Conservancys Mad Island Marsh Preserve, on whats left of the marshlands and upland prairies that once stretched nearly unbroken along the entire coast. You can see wildflowers all year long as well as cordgrass, glassworts, bristlegrass, rushes and cattails; alligators and coyotes as well as brown shrimp, flounder and speckled trout; and, of course, plenty of birds. Phone: (361) 972-3295.

Bird fanciers wont lack for activities in Matagorda, but what else can visitors do here in the vast expanses of farmland and acres of cattle country? As a Northeasterner visiting for the first time, I had enough to see and do to keep me occupied for at least a week.

This place is still pretty rustic, despite its proximity to Houston, with only a few fast-food restaurants cluttering up the highways and a limited number of strip malls displacing local stores. 

After checking into the Best Western, a modest establishment in Bay City, I drove around the countryside to get a better understanding of rice and turf farming, check out the shrimp boats crowding the harbors and admire the herds of Hereford, Angus and Brahmin cattle. There are also, by the way, a few inns and bed-and-breakfasts (some commissionable) spotted around the county. 

Fishing and boating are a big draw here. Freebird Kayak and Canoe Adventures is the outfit to call if youre up for a paddle, either with a guided tour or on your own. Phone: (979) 863-7926.

Some of the best adventures in Matagorda County are provided by Day on the Bay Services, a company operated by Capt. James Arnold, a retired postman who shrimped, oystered and fished these waters for many years and now takes people out in commercial fishing boats.

For about $50 an hour plus the cost of fuel, hell take up to six people for about 30 miles on his bay and estuary tour.

Activities are up to you and include fishing, hunting, shrimping, birding and oystering or just plain sightseeing.

You can join one of his group trips or charter a small motorized vessel. Anything you want to do, call me, he said, and if I dont do it, Ill tell you where to find it.

Day on the Bay pays commission to travel agents. Call (979) 244-6787 or visit www.dayonthebayservices.com.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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