San Antonio’s River Transformed Into a Year-Round Birding Destination

Megan Lagrone |

San Antonio, May 2019 -- San Antonio is undergoing a city-wide transformation, and one key area of focus is restoring the city’s ecological and natural surroundings. After years of effort, the revitalization of a major stretch of the San Antonio River into a healthy ecosystem has attracted thousands of new birds, positioning the Alamo City as a year-round avian oasis.

Background: In 2013, the multi-year, $384.1 million San Antonio River Improvements Project was completed. In total, the project revitalized 13 miles of the San Antonio River,  including an eight-mile section south of downtown that had essentially become a concrete-lined drainage ditch, void of flora and fauna. Through the strategic introduction of native vegetation, the hope was with time the area’s natural ecosystem would be revived. This stretch of river is referred to as the “Mission Reach” and connects four of San Antonio’s five Spanish Colonial Missions, which, along with The Alamo, collectively are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Mission Reach Avian Study: In 2015, the San Antonio River Authority (SARA) began a multi-year Mission Reach Avian Study, led by renowned naturalist Martin Reid, to document the effects of the San Antonio River Improvements Project. The initial study has found the area's birding population has flourished, with 201 species documented as using the restored habitats, including several rare and endangered birds. The San Antonio River is part of the Central Flyway, and, in addition to resident species, many migrant species have been recorded using the study area.

The birds: More than 63,000 birds have been spotted over the 41 months of the study completed thus far. Notable records include: Interior Least Tern, a federally-listed endangered subspecies of Least Tern; Black-capped Vireo, a state-listed endangered species; Cassin’s Kingbird, a western species that had only been recorded once in Bexar County prior to the study; Lazuli Bunting, a passage migrant that is very rare in the eastern two thirds of Texas; Tricolored Heron, a rare winter species for the area; Bald Eagle; Scissor-Tailed Flycatcher (pictured, above left); Great Blue Heron (pictured, above center) and Couch Kingbird (pictured, above right). To see additional information on birds from the study, click here.

For visitors:  With the revitalized Mission Reach, San Antonio offers visitors a unique experience, where one can enjoy birding year-round, while being minutes away from some of the city’s key attractions such as The Alamo, Pearl and the historic downtown section of the River Walk. Unlike other areas of the San Antonio River Walk, the native landscape of the Mission Reach looks wild rather than manicured and is abundant in tall grasses and wildflowers, resulting in a serene, natural landscape where visitors can enjoy the beauty of the river followed by a margarita downtown or a jaunt to one of the city’s many museums. 

For additional birding experiences, the Michell Lake Audubon Center’s wetland habitat is one of the last critical stopovers for long-distance migratory bird species before the Texas Coast. The center offers world-class birding in addition to a variety of year-round tours, programs and events dedicated to conservation. Friedrich Wilderness Park, Government Canyon State Natural Area, Medina River Natural Area and the San Antonio Botanical Garden are also popular locations for bird watching.

A bird checklist is available to help visitors keep track of species spotted as well as an iNaturalist app where one can partake in “citizen science,” logging species as they are spotted. The data logged can then be used as actual scientific data by SARA.

For more information and background on the Mission Reach Aviation Study, click here, and for a video with more information, click here.

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Megan Lagrone

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