Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger)

Black skimmer | Photo credit: Robin Agarwal

Black skimmers require a double-take to fully appreciate their odd proportions. Unlike all other North American bird species, the lower portion of the skimmer’s knife-like beak is longer than the upper. This unique adaptation allows the skimmer to fly just above the water, its long lower mandible skimming the water’s surface for fish which, when found, it snaps up instantly. Skimmer’s bodies are also oddly proportioned, measuring eighteen inches in length with long, narrow wings and extremely short legs.

The black skimmer is black above, with a white face, throat, and underside. Their odd beak is bright red at the base and black at the tip. Black skimmers are found along the East and Gulf coasts of the United States, as well as Central and South America. Best observed along coastal bays, islands, and beaches, black skimmers create simple nests consisting of nothing more than shallow scrapes in the sand. Coloration resembling beach sand and debris disguises black skimmer eggs and chicks from predators and other threats.

Texas offers year-round black skimmer viewing opportunities. Nesting black skimmers can occasionally be observed at Goose Island State Park near Rockport, and along the John F. Kennedy Causeway in Corpus Christi, where a special area has been set aside for them. Such protection is necessary, as widespread coastal development and beach traffic poses serious hazards to black skimmer populations nationwide. Black skimmers are along Laguna Madre at Padre Island National Seashore.

Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)

Bald eagle | Photo credit: Andy Morffew

The national bird of the United States since 1782, the bald eagle is the most well-known bird of prey in North America. Like many other species, the majestic bald eagle’s existence was severely threatened by human development, pesticide use, and poaching. Over the past twenty-five years, however, the bald eagle population has recovered thanks to federal legislation, including bans on harmful pesticides such as DDT, as well as public education, and other conservation and rehabilitation efforts. As bald eagle populations stabilized, the species was de-listed from the Endangered Species List in 1995 and removed from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife in the continental United States in 2007.

Bald eagles measure approximately thirty-six inches tall, with an average wingspan of seven feet. Bald eagles are attractive birds with a brownish-black body, large yellow feet and beak, and a distinctive snow white head, neck, and tail. The bald eagle feeds primarily on fresh carrion and fish, occasionally taking waterfowl and small mammals as well.

Bald eagles are best observed during the winter, when they congregate around lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. Like many bird species, individual bald eagles pair up with a lifelong mate and return annually to the same nesting site. Bald eagles create the largest nests of any bird species–nests estimated to weigh over two tons have been observed! Year after year, the breeding pair adds new material to their existing nest.

Approximately one thousand bald eagles migrate to Texas each year, nesting from December through February. The Vanishing Texas River Cruise on Lake Buchanan in Burnet, Texas, offers bald eagle viewing opportunities from November through March. Overnight camping and other facilities are available in nearby Inks Lake State Park. Some of the best bald eagle viewing in the state, however, is probably at Fairfield Lake State Park where eagle watching tours are held each Saturday from November through February.

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotelus atrox)

Western diamondback rattlesnake just after sunset | Photo credit: Tom Spinker

The Western diamondback rattlesnake, common throughout North America, is just one of the many snake species that inhabit Texas. A member of the pit viper family, the venomous, six- to eight-foot-long diamondback is one of the world’s most dangerous snakes. The distinctive diamond pattern running the length of the snake’s body serves as camouflage.

When threatened or startled, the snake coils and vibrates the rattle at the tip of its tail, emitting a loud, rhythmic buzz. The sign of an impending strike, the snake may also raise its neck into an “S” curve; even when fully coiled, rattlesnakes can strike a distance equal to half their body length. Diamondbacks feed primarily on frogs, rodents, rabbits, lizards, and birds, all of which it can swallow whole.

Diamondbacks can be found in desert, grassland, woodland, and river bottom habitats; their longevity is approximately fifteen years. A nocturnal species, diamondbacks often spend their days coiled quietly in the shade where they can easily move in and out of the sun to regulate their body temperature.

In total, there are over fifteen species of rattlesnakes in the United States and they all have poisonous (toxic) venom. Other toxic venom snakes in the U.S. are water moccasin (also known as cottonmouth), copperhead, and two species of coral snake. National Poison Center HotlineSeveral harmless snake species have coloration similar to the poisonous coral snake; the following mnemonic proves useful in differentiating the innocuous snakes from the toxic ones, based on the arrangement of their color bands:

Red on black, poison lack;
Red on yellow, kill a fellow.

Contact the National Poison Center Hotline if you are bitten by a snake or other venomous creature.

Virtually any grassy or brushy area in Texas can yield viewing opportunities for various snake species. The western diamondback pictured on this page was spotted at Mitchell Lake Wetlands in San Antonio.