A White Pelican before takeoff. Photo credit: Shyamala Rao.

Each spring and fall, San Antonians are treated to a spectacular free show that is rarely appreciated for what it is. In fact, it often flies right over people’s heads without them ever knowing it. These displays come from the more than 350 different bird species and over 100,000 total birds traveling through San Antonio along the Central Flyway twice a year.

Many of the birds passing through the flyway may be on a journey that extends all the way from Patagonia in South America to the Arctic, depending on the species. As a central stopover point for food during their long treks, San Antonio is a prime birding location and resting spot for weary-winged travelers.

One such point is Mitchell Lake Audubon Center, located on a 1200-acre natural area just south of downtown San Antonio. On Saturday, May 10, Mitchell Lake will host one of five citywide events for the second annual International Migratory Bird Day (IMBD).

Entrance to Mitchell Lake Audubon Center. Photo credit: Mitchell Lake Audubon Center.
Entrance to Mitchell Lake Audubon Center. Photo courtesy of Mitchell Lake Audubon Center.

IMBD is the signature program for Environment of the Americas and includes family-friendly activities designed to educate and raise awareness about migratory birds. It is officially recognized on the second Saturday in May, but due to the birds’ migratory patterns, festivities in South and Central America, Caribbean nations, and Canada take place in various seasons. In addition to Mitchell Lake, SeaWorld San Antonio, San Antonio Zoo, San Antonio River Authority, and Government Canyon State Natural Area also will be hosting events.

The theme for IMBD this year is “Why Birds Matter,” and it is a poignant topic indeed. Migratory birds reflect the overall health of an ecosystem, yet threats to their survival continue to grow. Most notably, many of these birds rely on undisturbed nesting sites with abundant food in the form of seeds, nuts and insects.  A healthy water supply is crucial, and these birds are very susceptible to the increasingly worrisome water situation in Texas and elsewhere in the southern United States. One such bird that has thrived from conservation efforts is the American White Pelican, which is a prominent guest at Mitchell Lake and the mascot bird for this year’s IMBD.

 A Pair of White Pelicans. Photo credit: Shyamala Rao.
A Pair of White Pelicans. Photo credit: Shyamala Rao.

As recently as the 1970s, the American White Pelican was dwindling due to lack of habitat protection and pesticide use, but has seen an upswing in its numbers, thanks in part to refuges like Mitchell Lake.

“Mitchell Lake is an interesting and compelling story—as its past use as a city sewage treatment facility—to a now rehabilitated wildlife refuge, it shows just how important migratory stopovers can be,” said Jason St. Sauver, Education and Operations Manager at Mitchell Lake. “In Texas, especially, with natural wetlands rather rare except along the coast, it is an extremely important spot all year round for resident species to use. The shallow and nutrient-rich wetlands of Mitchell Lake are absolutely necessary for food and as a resting stop for these long distant migrants on their way to and from the Arctic.”

The Whooping Crane, San Antonio Zoo’s featured bird for IMBD, is another particularly fascinating example of the importance of coastal and wetland areas. The Whooping Crane’s western flock—which is the only natural, wild migratory flock in the world—makes its residence each winter in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge near Corpus Christi. Because of drought and human overconsumption, freshwater from river’s like the Rio Grande is becoming scarcer in the estuaries. The lack of freshwater inflow into Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on Matagorda Bay means fewer blue crabs can survive in the estuaries, therefore diminishing a vital food source for the Whooping Cranes.

While water is vital, urban development is also a major hindrance to migratory bird populations. The Golden-cheeked Warbler, featured this year at Government Canyon, is celebrating its 150th year since first being spotted in Texas, yet remains so imperiled it is on the Federal Endangered Species list. With heavy development projects in areas like northern Bexar County near Camp Bullis continuing to destroy mature Cedar trees—the nesting tree of the Golden-cheeked Warbler—Government Canyon’s 11,000-acre respite has become invaluable for the warbler.

 The American White Pelican, showcased this year at Mitchell Lake Audubon Center for IMBD. Photo credit: Paul Pruitt.
The American White Pelican, showcased this year at Mitchell Lake Audubon Center for IMBD. Photo credit: Paul Pruitt.

Monoculture farming practices throughout the Central United States and Central and South America, river diversion in western states, and energy extraction are all contributors to vanishing of resources these birds desperately rely on, but conservation efforts are full of success stories, like Mitchell Lake and the American White Pelican.

The Roseate Spoonbill migrates through Mitchell Lake and is featured at SeaWorld San Antonio’s IMBD event this year. In the early 1900s the Roseate Spoonbill, a regular migrant through Mitchell Lake and SeaWorld San Antonio’s featured bird, was on the brink of extinction. Now, it is thriving thanks to raised awareness and conservation efforts.

“We want to highlight that people can make a difference in a positive way by making a connection with the natural world we share,” says Paige Newman, Assistant Curator of Aviculture at SeaWorld San Antonio. “We hope to have several thousand guests coming through [on IMBD]. This year we wanted to have a citywide event from multiple entities to get this important conservation message out. We hope to continue to grow this event.”

So what can the average citizen do to help in this fight to protect natural habitats for these creatures so vital to our ecosystems? Quite simply: A lot. It all begins with understanding the global water situation. With so many birds, and other species, relying on a healthy water supply, even greater emphasis on water conservation going forward is paramount. But there are other, simpler things that can be done to protect these birds, as well.

A Nesting Pair of Roseate Spoonbills. Photo credit: Shyamala Rao.
A Nesting Pair of Roseate Spoonbills. Photo credit: Shyamala Rao.

“Provide habitat in your backyard for birds migrating, making sure to clean out dirty feeders and put out fresh water every few days, plant native vegetation which provides not only food and shelter but materials to construct a nest,” said Newman. “We are in a privileged position here in San Antonio in that we are able to enjoy watching the mass migrations of birds through our community because of our location. As humans, we play a vital role in the world we share.”

With IMBD festivities ranging from Olympic-themed competitions for the kiddos, to an edifying stroll along the River Walk: Mission East, to guided bird tours through the zoo, IMBD’s celebrations on May 10th have something for everyone.

And next time you gaze into the dusky Texas sky and spot a dark, rhythmic sway cutting across the colorful backdrop, take a moment to appreciate the scene. After all, those birds have come a very long way, and put on quite a show.

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Alex Layman's works have appeared in Kirkus Reviews, Huffington Post, San Antonio Current, and elsewhere. He is originally from San Antonio and works for the San Antonio Book Festival. To contact him directly,...