VAN HORN, Texas -- "Snowbirds" aren't the only ones who fly south to spend the winter in Texas.

So many different kinds of winged creatures migrate to the Lone Star state -- or live there year round -- that Texas has long been known as one of the nation's best birding destinations.

Texas didn't wait long to build on that reputation after earning four spots on a list of America's top 10 birding locations in the mid-1990s. The state soon established the first birding trail in the United States. Texas naturalists scouted the best sites to see birds, and tourism experts offered tips on where to stay and eat. The result is a series of birding-trail maps.

A recently published map of the Far West Texas Wildlife/Birding Trail on the border with New Mexico is the last of nine in a set that covers the entire state. Online versions of the maps are available at www.tpwd.state.tx.us/wildlifetrails.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service says 2.5 million people bird watch in Texas. They're a majority of the 4.2 million people who participate in nature viewing, a pastime more popular than traditional outdoor sports.

"In terms of number of people, that's more than hunting and angling. It's an impressive number," said Shelly Plante, nature tourism coordinator for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Economic impact of nature viewing in Texas is $5.1 billion annually. The nature/birding trails have been so successful, 40 states have followed the Texas model, she said.

Bloomington-raised Beth Nobles, 52, is regional coordinator of tourism for the Texas Mountain Trail that collaborated with Plante's agency and the Texas Pecos Trail to produce the Far West Texas Wildlife/Birding Trail. The Texas Mountain Trail and the neighboring Texas Pecos Trail are part of a network of 10 travel organizations that promote different areas of the state.

Noble's vast region encompasses the six western-most counties in Texas and covers nearly 22,000 square miles. Included are El Paso, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, the Davis Mountains, Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park and the Midland/Odessa area.

Nobles, daughter of Chuck and Barb Nobles of the Twin Cities, is excited about the new map and what it will mean to her area. You know nature viewing and bird watching are big after American Girl released Lanie, the doll of the year devoted to spending time in the outdoors, she said.

"The wildlife trails are immensely popular because they cater to the specific needs and interests of nature tourists, providing the information needed to explore the back roads of Texas," she said.

Humming along

Proclaimed the "Hummingbird Capitol of Texas," the mile-high Fort Davis hosts several varieties of the species, including Lucifer, Anna's, Black-chinned, Ruby-throated, Calliope, Broad-tailed and Rufous hummingbirds. Nobles said tourism officials hope the new birding map will prompt enough interest to revive an annual hummingbird festival once held there.

Many other bird species also visit the area or make permanent homes there because the region offers a range of habitat -- from desert to Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in the state at 8,749 feet. Hawk Alley near El Paso is one of several places that host raptors, including hawks, Bald eagles, owls and Peregrine falcons.

Other bird species include Scott's Oriole and Vermilion flycatchers. The Colima Warbler, though not a Texas wintering species, can only be seen in the United States in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park from April through September.

The chance to see four-legged wildlife adds to the fun of other popular outdoor activities, such as hiking, river rafting and road- and off-road cycling, Nobles said. Bear and mountain lions make rare appearances; Nobles has seen only one of each in the five years since she moved there. More common are prong-horned sheep, antelope, and javelina, which look like pigs but really aren't.

Nature viewing isn't always done in daylight or from close by. Fort Davis is home of McDonald Observatory, which is open to the public. Amateur astronomers love the area because the air is clean and light pollution is minimal. Big Bend National Park is working on a dark-sky initiative to eliminate even more sources of light.

"We have some of the darkest skies you will see in the country," Nobles said. "You see so many stars it's hard to make out the common constellations you know. It is truly incredible."

Don't expect crowds, either. The largest town in the Texas Mountain Trail area is Alpine, with 6,000 people. Snowbirds may add a few more.

On the web

Brochures for birding trails in Texas can be found at www.tpwd.state.tx.us/publications/pwdpubs/media/pwd_bk_w7000_1092.pdf . The web site will be updated soon to include far west Texas, the last of the series. It also will be at www.texasmountaintrail.com/bird. Hard copies will be available to order, too.

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