South Padre Island – Migratory Bird Mecca

Post #5 of The Great Texas Birding Adventure

Previous Post #4 Laguna Vista – A Nature Trail and Fish Tacos

After a most excellent fish taco lunch and short stroll in Roloff Park in Laguna Vista, we decided that we wanted to explore the other side of the bay. While there are a number of “Must Visit” birding locations in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, when it comes to seeing migrating birds from the tropics (neotropical migrants), none is higher on the list than South Padre Island.  

©Dr. Hal Needham


Geologically speaking, Padre Island is a young island, having formed in just the last several thousand years. It is one of 300 barrier islands stretching from Maine to Mexico. These natural barrier islands act to protect the mainland from the direct onslaught of storms. Padre Island began forming as a submerged sandbar some 4,500 years ago, while the actual emerged island may be only 1,000 to 1,500 years old.

Image by heydere

The island is mostly prairie/grasslands with ephemeral marshes and ponds bordered on the east by the Gulf of Mexico and on the west by the Laguna Madre. The highest elevation is approximately fifty feet.

Most of the seashore is accessible only by four-wheel-drive vehicle. The Gulf beach is composed of white sand and is less than a hundred feet wide.Bordering the beach is a narrow dune ridge running almost the length of the entire island. West of the dune ridge are the grasslands and marshes. Few trees exist on the island. Those that do are mostly mesquite, live oak, or willow. On the western shore of the island are extensive mudflats.


The Laguna Madre Bay is a “hyper-saline” bay meaning the salt content is higher than the rest of the ocean. It is one of only six hyper-saline bays in the world and is the largest with an average depth of only 3.3 feet. Laguna Madre is composed of extensive mudflats, which are considered environmentally sensitive. Because there is little flow of sediments along the Laguna shore, damage to the mudflats can last a long time. Tire tracks and footprints left over twenty years ago can still be seen in some parts.


South Padre Island was a beautiful, desolate place where native Karankawa Indians, migratory birds, and sea turtles were the only residents. The Island was granted to Nicolás Ballí from King Carlos III of Spain in 1759 and later passed to Ballí’s grandson, Padre José Nicolás Ballí. Soon after, Padre José brought the first permanent settlers, establishing a church and teaching Christianity to the Karankawa Indians.

When Padre Ballí owned the Island, it was known as the Isla de Santiago. Due to the Padre’s reputation as a kind man, the people to whom he ministered affectionately referred to the Island as La Isla Padre – Padre Island. 

Five nations have owned Padre Island at different times. First the Karankawa people, followed by Spain until 1820, then Mexico until 1836, Republic of Texas until War with Mexico in 1848 and currently, the United States. Throughout these times, the island has been known by several names, with Padre Island being only the most recent. It has also been known as “la Isla Blanca” (White Island) and “Isla de los Malaguitas” (Island of the Malaquites, a band of the Karankawa people).

Today, tourism is the leading economical venture on the island, mostly confined to the south end of the island.


Bird species found on the island mostly fall into two groups; the Residents and the Migrants.

RESIDENT SPECIES – Resident species include various waterfowl such as Blue-winged Teal, Mottled Ducks and Redheads. South Padre Island is also home to several heron and egret species like Tricolored Heron, Reddish Egret and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. Also hundreds of Laughing Gulls, Elegant Terns and Black Skimmers can be found year round. Skulking around in the seasonal wetlands, the more secretive rail species may be encountered.

NEOTRIPICAL MIGRANTS – During the seasonal push of migrant birds from the tropics, the number of birds stopping along the island can be staggering, especially during fall out conditions. The list of Neotropical migrants is quite impressive with birds ranging from the Yellow-billed Cuckoo to the brilliant Indigo and Painted Buntings and 44 species of warblers. The list goes on and on.

WHAT IS A BIRD FALLOUT? Are we there yet?

Bird fallout or migration fallout is the result of severe weather preventing migratory birds from reaching their destination. This can occur while birds are traveling south or returning to their breeding grounds. Due to the distance travelled, birds will not have enough energy to continue flight when encountering high winds. This exhaustion results in many birds resting in one area. While South Padre Island isn’t the answer to a bird’s Are we there yet? question, it often is a much needed pitstop along the way towards their final destination.


Isla Blanca State Park

  • 212 Species Observed
  • 386 Complete Checklists (as of 6/19/21)

Valley Land Fund lots – Sheepshead Dr.

  • 291 Species Observed
  • 5,666 Complete Checklists (as of 6/19/21)

Birding and Nature Center

  • 360 Species Observed
  • 7,398 Complete Checklists (as of 6/19/21)

Convention Center

  • 365 Species Observed
  • 10,957 Complete Checklists (as of 6/19/21)

Bay Access mudflats

  • 236 Species Observed
  • 1,607 Complete Checklists (as of 6/19/21)

As one advocate put it, Padre was a “vast wilderness of sea, sand, and surf where it is possible to escape the anxieties, tensions, and complexities of our time.”

Next Week’s Blog Post #6 – Baa Baa Sheepshead, Have You Any Birds?

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