The Gulf Coast is a nature lover’s paradise. Not only does it boast some of the finest beaches in the country rimmed with the emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico, but just a short distance inland, you will find dark and mysterious swamps and bayous and maritime wetlands and forests.
This unique combination of environments makes the Gulf Coast an incredible destination for birders, with a multitude of species either calling the area home or migrating there in spring and fall. To celebrate the birds that call the Gulf Coast home, many of the towns along the coast have created annual festivals that are sure to please not only the diehard bird watcher but outdoor lovers as well.
Here are seven of the best festivals you should check out this year.
1. Birdiest Festival in America — Corpus Christi, Texas
We begin our trip around the crescent of the Gulf of Mexico in Corpus Christi, Texas, where the residents lay claim to having the Birdiest Festival in America.
The festival begins the third Wednesday in April and runs a full five days. Each day is crammed with fun and informative presentations by professional ornithologists and is highlighted with demonstrations by the Raptor Project. They bring their flock of non-releasable hawks, falcons, and owls and put on a stupendous show.
The main attraction to this festival are its many, and I mean many, outdoor adventures to nearby sites, where birders of all stripes can check a species or two off their list. In 2021, organizers said that attendees were able to view 314 species of birds, including the rare and endangered whooping crane.
There are so many events and trips planned, it’s impossible to list them all here. Visit the festival’s schedule page for the lineup.
The home base for the festival is the South Texas Botanical Gardens. There is a registration fee to attend, then each field trip has a separate fee. It’s recommended that you purchase tickets and field trip reservations in advance online.
If you can’t get enough of the festival, there are special pre and post-festival tours available.
2. Whooping Crane Festival — Port Aransas, Texas
A trumpet-like call that can be heard for several miles heralds the arrival of whooping cranes to Port Aransas, Texas.
Whooping cranes, or whoopers, are an endangered species of bird. In fact, their numbers declined to only 15 in 1941, but strict laws protecting the bird have seen a gradual increase in numbers. There are now over 100.
Whooping cranes spend their summers in Canada but migrate to Port Aransas to spend the winter and spring. To celebrate their return, the city holds the annual Whooping Crane Festival. The four-day event begins on the fourth Thursday of February with a schedule that is packed with presentations by authors and ornithologists, workshops, and plenty of opportunities to view these beautiful and rare birds in the wild.
But the weekend isn’t only about the whoopers. Daily tours are offered to do a little birding and to watch dolphins at play in the Gulf.
Be sure to visit the festival’s Host Hotel webpage, where you can score some great deals on accommodations while you’re in Port Aransas for the fest.
3. Galveston Feather Fest — Galveston, Texas
Any time of year is a wonderful time to visit Galveston, Texas. The barrier island has been described as being “trapped in time.” Many of the streets are lined with row after row of beautifully restored historic homes. And, of course, there is that spectacular beach.
In spring, the island welcomes birders for the annual Galveston Feather Fest. This four-day event begins the third Thursday of April, and again, it is packed wall-to-wall with birding and photography field trips, birding and photography workshops, and evening socials.
Field trips are priced individually and can be purchased online. Find the field trips you would like to attend, and register as soon as possible to secure a spot. You can elect to be placed on a waitlist so that if a trip is full, you will be notified when a spot opens.
4. Eagle Expo — Morgan City, Louisiana
The largest overflow swamp in America, Atchafalaya Basin in Morgan City, Louisiana, is the home of one of the most majestic birds in North America: the American bald eagle. For four days beginning the third Thursday in February, the town of Morgan City opens its doors to visitors to celebrate the eagle with their annual Eagle Expo.
Several boat tours are scheduled to the basin and Bayou Long to view the eagle as it soars through the deep blue Cajun sky. In past years, attendees viewed over 60 eagles.
Other field trips scattered throughout the weekend take you to the Bayou Teche National Wildlife Refuge and other properties in the area, where you will see an amazing array of species that includes white pelicans, great egrets, red-shouldered hawks. The list goes on and on.
The weekend begins with a special presentation at the Patterson Civic Center Thursday night, then the kickoff Friday Night Social at the Lake End Park and Campground, where you can meet other like-minded birdwatchers while enjoying beverages and snacks.
Tickets can be purchased online.
Morgan City has incredible restaurants you should visit while in town. Two favorites are the Atchafalaya Café, which serves up delicious Cajun seafood (try the Lowcountry Shrimp and Grits), and Rita Mae’s Kitchen, which has been cooking up warming Southern comfort food since 1957.
5. Great Louisiana Birdfest — St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana
Staying in Louisiana, we make our way two hours west of Morgan City, crossing Lake Pontchartrain to St. Tammany Parish and the annual Great Louisiana Birdfest.
Birders will tell you that the parish is a hot spot for birding, with over 1 million birds migrating in each spring. It’s not unusual for attendees of the Birdfest to spot over 150 distinct species.
The event takes place the last weekend of March and runs through the following Monday. The festival hosts two birding workshops the Saturday of the event and one on Sunday. The bulk of the weekend is filled with field trips to a variety of different habitats where you may catch loons, brown pelicans, several species of bitterns, ibis, and more.
Tickets range from $5 to $45. You are encouraged to contact the festival host, the Northlake Nature Center, for ticket details and schedule.
Unlike the other birding festivals mentioned that offer rides via tour bus or van to a field trip, the trips of this festival are self-drive. You will meet at a central location and caravan to the site. Contact the Northlake Nature Center for more information.
Make sure to set aside some time to explore the nature center. The center has just over 3.5 miles of easy walking trails that lead to beautiful views of Bayou Castine and Savanna Lake.
6. Alabama Coastal Birding Festival — Spanish Fort, Alabama
One of the largest birding festivals on the Gulf is held the last weekend of September along the banks of Mobile Bay: the Alabama Coastal Birdfest.
Each year, thousands of people flock (no pun intended) to the state-run 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center in Spanish Fort, which acts as the home base for the 4-day event to experience the incredible number of species that either call the area their permanent home or migrate to it each year.
Highlights of the event include a full schedule of workshops on basic birding, attracting hummingbirds and butterflies to your home garden, photography, and even how to choose and plan national and international birding adventures.
Then there are the field trips that take you to the mudflats of Blakeley Island, the transitional maritime forest and snowy white beaches of the Gulf at the Bon Secour Wildlife Refuge in Gulf Shores, and a unique adventure into “America’s Amazon,” the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta.
A portion of the proceeds from the event helps preserve and protect this amazing, fertile environment.
As of this writing, ticket information was not available, but as with all birding festivals, there will be a separate registration fee for each field trip. Contact the South Alabama Land Trust for the latest information on tickets and schedule.
While attending the festival, be sure to visit the many nearby historic attractions, including the battleship USS Alabama, the History Museum of Mobile, and the Mobile Carnival Museum that traces the history of Mardi Gras in America.
7. Festival of Birds — Naples, Florida
While most birding festivals are only a few days long, the Festival of the Birds in Naples, Florida, takes up a full month.
The event is now a hybrid festival with both online presentations and workshops and in-person field trips to some of Florida’s amazing preserves, including Big Cypress, Bunche Beach, and Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.
Tickets to the event are around $45, but additional fees for the field trips may apply.