Birding in Beaumont, Texas

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Birding in Beaumont, Texas

I am not a birder. I have never intentionally gone birding. I’ll pay my obligatory respects to all the caged birds at the zoo on my way to the monkeys and giraffes and big cats, but I don’t stand there staring at them any longer than necessary. I’ve got no problem with birds, and I might watch one doing something weird in my backyard for a bit, but I’ve never made a point to go stand outside somewhere just to look at them. I can’t even recognize those normal guys I see bopping about outside my house every day; how am I supposed to know when I’m looking at something rare or unique? My concept of birding resembles Dennis Quaid’s cameo in the underrated cussing dog classic Strays, where every entry in the actor’s birding manual is simply the hand-written word “BIRD” with a check box next to it. And yet, during a recent trip to Beaumont, Texas, I went on a birding tour through Cattail Marsh not once, but twice. Guess what: The birds are good. I would look at them again.

I had no idea what a “purple gallinule” was, but Cattail Marsh seemed to be full of ‘em back in June. (Hell, I’d never even heard of the common gallinule. I am not a birder.) This 900 acre plot of wetlands between Houston and Louisiana was created in 1993 as part of Beaumont’s wastewater management system, and in the decades since has become home to a thriving and diverse community of birds. A quick glance at its page on eBird, an actual website, will show you how rich its bird population is (and also make you marvel at the dedication and prolificness of birder extraordinaire Harlan Stewart). Almost 300 birds have been logged from Cattail, including a reported but unconfirmed sighting of the Egyptian goose, which, as its name implies, is native to Africa and not southeast Texas.

Cattail Marsh is one of over two dozen birding trails within 40 miles of Beaumont, which is fortuitously situated on two of America’s four major migratory flyways. Southeast Texas is becoming a birder’s paradise, and Beaumont is basically at the center of it all. Cattail Marsh is its premier spot, with several miles of levee roads letting you explore the marsh and watch birds at your leisure. And at the heart of Cattail is a boardwalk that lets you walk into and above the wetlands, with seating, two covered areas, and an elevated education center that towers above the marsh and can help any prospective birder get their start. 

During our tour of the marsh we saw one teenaged gallinule who had just moved out of the nest taking some of the first anxious steps of life on its own, away from the security of childhood and parents. We watched as certain practicalities of the real world started to dawn on the young bird, namely that it needs to get the hell out of the way when a van drives straight towards it. I would absolutely watch a movie about that teen bird and its dumbass friends trying to get laid before the end of senior year, which shouldn’t surprise anybody, since I’m the kind of person who will gladly reference the cussing dog classic Strays in the very first paragraph of an article about birding. Instead I could only watch the bird itself as it scampered off the levee road and into the grassy muck, no doubt in search of a fake ID and whatever might be the gallinule equivalent of a case of High Life.

Other birds with even more complicated names call Cattail Marsh home. Recent sightings have included the black-bellied whistling duck, the blue-winged teal, a pied-billed grebe, a neotropic cormorant, the fulvous whistling duck, and more varieties of sandpipers, egrets, and woodpeckers than I could ever imagine. One of those sandpipers is semipalmated, even. They’re all just hanging out there, spending part of their year in this man-made wetland that is the last step in Beaumont’s sewage treatment system—wastewater is a perfect home, apparently, for these beautiful, majestic creatures that routinely inspire us with their glorious plumage and almost magical power of flight. 

I’m not going to lie: I didn’t have a revelatory experience birding in Beaumont. I did not rush home to buy binoculars and a birding guide and head out into the wilds of North Georgia to track whatever I found. But I did get a little bit of insight into a hobby that attracts such passionate devotees, and can see why watching these weird little guys can be so enchanting. If more animals had the colorful variety seen in birds, and lived as publically and easily viewable, there would no doubt be communities devoted to watching them, too. 

There’s more to Beaumont than birding. As the site of the Spindletop oilfield, it’s basically the original home of the modern oil industry; that’s not quite the flex it would’ve been before we knew about climate change, but it’s still an interesting bit of history that’s inspired the Texas Energy Museum near downtown Beaumont. (There’s a cool multistory Frank Robinson mural nearby.) This small city of about 113,000 or so is trying hard to attract tourists its way, and if you’re a birder (or an inordinately massive fan of firefighting—it’s also home to the quaint Fire Museum of Texas) it’s worth straying 85 miles from Houston to look at those birds. They’re good birds. 

Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.

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