Galveston in the spring, especially during a narrow band of time starting in mid-April, is at the center of the birding world. Migrating songbirds crossing the Gulf of Mexico arrive on Texas shores tired and in need of rest after flying 500 miles from Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula or somewhere in Central America.

When they arrive each year, birdwatchers are waiting in droves for the brief migration spectacle before hundreds of species of songbirds take off for their northern breeding grounds.

“I run a south Texas trip every year in February and a west Texas trip in March,” said Jim Stevenson, founder of the Galveston Ornithological Society and a popular bird guide. “But every April, where else would I want to be except Galveston?

“It’s the wheelhouse of spring migration.”

In years past, scientists could only guess at the number of those migrating birds, drawing on information from surveys conducted along small portions of the 1,680-mile Gulf shoreline. But that’s no longer the case, as a study by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology announced this week.

Combining data from citizen scientists collected on a worldwide online database called eBird with weather radar data, Cornell researchers can now say with confidence that more than 2 billion birds cross over every spring, with a significant number landing on the shores of Galveston County.

The data also reveal when birds migrate and what routes they take, with the timing of peak spring migration consistently falling within the 18-day period from April 19 to May 7 and 1 billion birds passing over the Gulf in that time span. More of those birds land in Galveston County and Texas locations farther south and west than in the area stretching from Louisiana to Florida, according to study findings.

That observation is consistent with Stevenson’s experience, as are Cornell findings that the earliest seasonal movements are starting sooner, advancing about 1.5 days per decade because of global warming, Stevenson said.

These findings can provide important information that will allow researchers to assess long-term implications of climate change for migratory birds and other living creatures, the Cornell scientists said.

“It kind of makes sense,” Stevenson said. “If the Earth is getting warmer — and everybody but Donald Trump knows that — if you’re a bird, you’re going to want to get to the prime breeding habitat as early as you can. If the Earth is warming, you have to get there a little earlier.”

Birdwatchers in the Galveston area no longer see nearly the number of migrating birds in the second half of May that they saw in previous decades, Stevenson said.

“In the first half of May, nowadays, you get just a few really good days,” he said.

Peak viewing once occurred about April 21 but now is more likely to fall about April 18, Stevenson said.

FeatherFest, Galveston’s annual birding and bird photography festival, celebrating its 17th year, is organized around what are expected to be peak birding times in conjunction with the Easter holiday.

This year’s festival will be April 11 to 14, said Greg Whittaker, a board member of the Houston Audubon Society and founder of the Galveston Audubon group.

“The timing of peak viewing is a little more erratic and probably has to do with shorter-term weather events, like when a cold front comes in,” Whittaker said, citing three weather events last spring that created fallouts of birds, blowing them about in cold winds and leaving them exhausted and in need of rest.

“They kind of drop out of the sky to eat for a couple of days before moving forward,” he said. “It’s a good time to see huge diversity.”

Whittaker is one of legions of birders recording sightings on the eBird site,, contributing to Cornell’s research. Birders from anywhere in the world can record sightings and post photos on the site in 30 languages, logging where, when and what they saw. The free and open access database has listed a half-billion sightings so far, specifying sites where particular species have been spotted and exactly when.

Of Texas counties ranked as hotspots on the site, Galveston County ranks number four.

Birds are unrivaled indicators of the environment, the Cornell scientists argue.

Mapping their populations and movements more accurately will provide invaluable data as the Earth and seas grow warmer, creating dramatic environmental shifts.

“We don’t know what the result of this climate change will be,” Stevenson said. “But all through history, animals have gone extinct.

“Birds have within their genetic mechanism the ability to change and adapt to a changing world, but if the change takes place faster than they can adapt, then they are at risk.”

Kathryn Eastburn: 409-683-5257;


(23) comments

Claudia Burnam

MS Eastburn, why would you ruin a perfectly good article by putting Stevenson's dig of President Trump? E G Wiley

Paula Flinn

One quote from a scientist does not “ruin” an article. We all know President Trump is a climate denier. It was an interesting and informative article.

Claudia Burnam

Paula: One person's trash is another's treasure! For me it ruined the article! E G Wiley

Kay Fritz

Indeed, Claudia.

Stephen Murphy

Well, that two minutes of my life I'll never get back.

Rusty Schroeder

I remember Jim from his posts about the stray cat problem in Galveston as well as at San Luis Pass. It does not in the least surprise me he is now an expert of climate change, nor a Trump basher. What does surprise me is that Kathryn brings politics, and a jab at our President, into an article at bird watching. I have enjoyed her articles, the first I remember was about the vendors at the Bike Rally back in November. Now I see she is just another biased journalist that promotes liberal views in a county that is predominately conservative. This paper never ceases to amaze me.

Susan Smith

Well said, Rusty.

Jim Lancaster

I’m with Rusty on this....another “journalist” using the press for an agenda item.

Jarvis Buckley

Why folks have to bash our President is beyond me . Your article is really good. But Jim ruined it. I suspect with your blessings. Sad.

George Croix

Yet another typecast journalist at the GDN....?

Paula Flinn

She was quoting Jim Stevenson. The quote, itself, was an aside. And, by his own admission, President Trump doesn’t believe in climate change, even though most scientists disagree. Sounds like the quote was said in jest. Much ado about nothing.

George Croix

Good thing Stevenson didn't use foul language instead of fowl, huh, PF....
Then the reporter would have HAD to include that along with the rest, too, irrelevant or not......or, if he'd made a 2000 word comment, all of that would have had to be quoted, too, huh....
Excuses are on sale on Amazon today for a dime for two dozen....
Shots are on sale, cheap, locally...........

Rusty Schroeder

Paula if that were the case why didn't he leave President Trump out of his remarks to begin with? Jim could have said "Al Gore predicted climate change, just like he created the internet" .

Carlos Ponce

" And, by his own admission, President Trump doesn’t believe in climate change,'
Wrong, Paula.
From 60 Minutes:
“I’m not denying climate change. I don’t think it’s a hoax. I think there’s probably a difference, but I don’t know that it’s man-made,” Trump said.
Like me he believes in climate change. but man-made climate change - not really.
Climate change has been going on ever since God created climate.

Kelly Naschke

Too bad the political hack didn’t release the jab at the beginning of the article. We could have stopped reading there...instead of being led further along to be insulted. Even worse is that I came outside this morning to eat breakfast under the palapa by my pool...and there was a cardinal on the fence singing his lungs out. I was thinking how ironic it was to be bird watching in my own slice of paradise...and to have that be the lead story on the front page. So I eagerly start reading while sipping my coffee and enjoying the rest of last nights steak and some eggs. I almost choked when my little bird buzz was ruined over someone’s political opinion. What a shame.

Gary Scoggin

Boy you guys are a bunch of snowflakes. You take offense to the smallest little things. Kathleen just quoted the guy. Take a breath folks.

George Croix

You the moderator now, Gary?

I bet you DO know the difference between offense, and exception..........[wink]

Rusty Schroeder

Gary calling people snowflakes, now that was worth checking in for :)

Gary Scoggin

Always happy to make your day, Rusty! ;-)

Gary Scoggin

Yes I do. Hence my comment.

Gary Scoggin

The irony is that nothing that the Trump Administration has done has been in place long enough to have any climate effects anyway. And I’m pretty dubious that the things he has done will result in much climate backsliding at all.

Steve Fouga

Sounds like plenty of folks need to put their big-boy pants on.

Jarvis Buckley

I think I would prefer to be called a snowflake than Jeff Flake.😀

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