During a year over 350 species of birds may inhabit Padre Island National Seashore. Many are residents, many come through during spring or fall migration, and many simply find their way here accidentally, often when storms or heavy weather force them out of their normal range. At least nine species of threatened or endangered birds can be found here: Brown Pelican, Peregrine Falcon, Reddish Egret, Least Tern, White-tailed Hawk, Osprey, Piping Plover, Snowy Plover, and Wilson's Plover. Two of the unusual or rare species (presumably forced out of their normal range by weather or other circumstances) documented are Sooty Tern and Masked Booby.
The island is an important stopover for many species of migratory birds because it lies on one of the main migration routes between North and Central America. Many species of central and eastern North America find their way to their wintering grounds by flying to the Gulf coast , then following the shoreline south. In addition, many birds that migrate directly across the Gulf often become exhausted and come here to rest and feed before continuing their journey. Padre Island also provides food and water to migrating species in an arid region, where both are scarce. Many migrants are shorebirds or wading birds, which feed on animal and insect life found in wetlands. Many ducks come to the Laguna Madre to feed on the many varieties of aquatic plants. For many raptors this area provides easy hunting as it is open country where, from atop a telephone pole, fence post, or mesquite tree, a bird can easily spot a mouse or snake hidden in the grass.
Because either roads or beach lead everywhere a visitor would want to go in the National Seashore, almost all birding can be done from a car. This is a distinct advantage because birds will often not take flight as quickly when a car approaches slowly, as they will when someone approaches on foot. Staying in a car thus allows one to approach closer than is normally possible. In addition, the park roads lead the visitor through almost all the types of habitat where birds can be found: Gulf beach, grasslands, freshwater ponds, the shore of the Laguna Madre, and near the few trees.
Common birds along the Gulf beaches are shorebirds and long-legged waders. The Laughing gull is without a doubt the most common bird on the seashore and the only species of gull that stays here year round (the others winter here). Other birds that will be seen almost every day throughout the year are Willet, Ruddy Turnstone, Curlew, Brown Pelican and a variety of terns. The Gulf beach is the largest section of terrain that is completely accessible to visitors. However, not all of it is accessible by vehicle. One portion over three miles in length, called Malaquite Beach (or "Closed" Beach), has been barricaded from vehicular traffic so that it may be used as a pedestrian area for sunbathers and swimmers. The Visitor Center and the RV campground are both located in the southern portion of Malaquite beach and thus information, snacks, toilet facilities, and parking are all convenient. Because there are no passing vehicles to frighten away flocks on the shoreline and usually only those small areas directly in front of the Visitors Center and the RV campground are used by sunbathers a a very large area is left to be walked in solitude. The sections of the seashore north and south of Closed Beach are accessible by vehicle and are called North and South Beaches.
North Beach is less than two miles in length and can be easily driven in a two-wheel drive vehicle as it is composed almost entirely of hard-packed sand. Unfortunately, it is often used as a secondary highway by people driving down the shore, and therefore at times traffic on North Beach can be quite busy.
South Beach is the largest section of beach, stretching 60 miles from the southern barricade of Closed Beach to the southern boundary of the park at the Mansfield Channel. The first five miles of South Beach are composed of hard-packed sand and can be easily driven by two-wheel drive vehicles. The remaining 55 miles contain areas of deep sand and shell and are thus limited to travel by four-wheel drive vehicles only (contact the Visitor Center for more information on traveling in the four-wheel drive area).
For birding, the four-wheel drive area has a distinct advantage: being less accessible there are fewer vehicles and greater solitude. In addition, some birds, such as White Ibis, which tend to stay in the southern areas of the Seashore, may be found.
Birds that live in the grasslands (such as Bobwhite, Eastern Meadowlark, and Sprague's Pipit) tend to stay well hidden and are difficult to find. The easiest birds to locate are the raptors that either migrate through or winter here. Usually these will be seen sitting on fenceposts or telephone poles and lines from the park entrance station back toward the JFK causeway (for example, American Kestrel, Loggerhead Shrike, Osprey, or Harris' Hawk). Northern Harrier may be often spotted flying low over the grasslands in search of prey. During fall and winter pairs of sandhill cranes can often be seen slowly strolling along searching for insects of flocks of Snow Geese may be seen foraging near the Visitor Center.
There are very few permanent ponds on the National Seashore, most being temporary ponds created after periods of rain. Because the terrain is generally flat, little rain is required to create a pond and those that are created are quite shallow. These temporary ponds are an excellent habitat for wading birds like Reddish Egret or Tricolored Heron and for many varities of ducks, such as American Coot, Mottled Duck, Green- or Blue-winged Teal and for marsh birds, such as American and Least bittern.
There are only two places in the park where visitors can access the Laguna Madre side of the island. One of these is Bird Island Basin and the other is the Yarborough Pass campground.
Bird Island Basin is easily accessible by a paved road a short distance past the park entrance station.Driving to the basin there is a pond on the left .45 mile from the turnoff and another on the left at 1.15 miles, just before the restroom facility. Ducks can often be spotted in the first, while wading birds are often seen in the second and in the mudflat directly across the road (a favorite haunt of Killdeer). Both of these latter two spots are frequently dry and the best times to search them is in the winter or after a period of rain. Sprague's Pipit, Grasshopper Sparrows, and Horned Lark may be seen foraging in the grass along the road to the boat ramp. At the boat ramp White Pelicans can often be found as well as Reddish Egret, Tricolored Heron, while Belted Kingfisher may be seen in the nearby trees. A variety of ducks may be seen offshore in the winter, including Scaup, Northern Pintail, Redhead, and Bufflehead. Mergansers are seen on occasion.
To reach Yarborough Pass requires a four-wheel drive vehicle as the primitive road to it begins on the Gulf beach at the 15-mile mark. Most of the birds to be found here can be seen at Bird Island Basin. Before going ask for directions and road conditions at the Visitor Center. There are no facilities of any type at the campground.