Brazos Bottoms

Bert Frenz, 2001

More than other habitats, the Brazos Bottoms offer rare and unusual sightings on a regular basis. Tundra Swan, Burrowing Owl, Vermilion Flycatcher, Horned Lark, Grasshopper Sparrow, Sandhill Crane, Crested Caracara are but a few of the reported species. The Bottoms generally refer to the low flat lands bordering the Brazos River, once a dense, swampy snarl of vines and trees, now thousands of acres of monotonous cotton fields. Much is inaccessible private lands, but these are riddled with farm roads including several which reach the river. While there are many areas to choose from, here we will describe a few that are easiest to reach.

In College Station, set your odometer to zero at the intersection of Texas Avenue and University Drive, head west on University, later transforming into Stotzer Parkway and Highway 60. Drive 7.3 miles toward Snook until you reach the Brazos River. Immediately (0.3 mile) to your right is a pull off. You can park here and explore the area beside the bridge or you can drive a few hundred yards on the gravel road to check out the entrance to Butler Bayou. The brushy and wooded habitat is alive with sparrows (Savannah, Song, Lincoln’s, Swamp, White-throated) and woodpeckers (Red-bellied Woodpecker and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker). If you drive further on the gravel road you will reach a sign warning you of private property and asking you to register first at the Buffalo Ranch office. To get permission for visiting Butler Bayou as well as over 14,000 other acres of Buffalo Ranch, return to FM 60. The ranch office is several miles off, so on the way stop at another birding spot at the Aquacultural Research & Teaching Facility of Texas A&M University. This stop is 1.1 miles further west from the river (milepost 8.4) and the gate is usually open for student and researcher access. The Aquacultural Facility includes several small ponds and a still stream, but the most productive area is a large rectangular tank. Park below the tank’s rim and walk slowly toward its edge to avoid disrupting the ducks just over the horizon. From 2 to 200 ducks will be easily visible, typically Ring-necked, Redhead, American Wigeon, Gadwall, Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead and Ruddy Duck. Before leaving, scan the wooded area beyond the stream for woodpeckers and Great Horned Owl. The stream, Middle Bayou, meanders west and crosses FM 60 and later FM 50. From each intersection, search for herons and egrets. In fall the stream is good habitat for Tricolored Heron, Little Blue Heron and Roseate Spoonbill.

Continue west on FM 60 (milepost 9.1), turn left on Farm Road 50 heading toward Independence. From this intersection drive 3.5 miles (milepost 12.6) to the entrance to Buffalo Ranch on the left. At the end of the long driveway you can register at the office Mon-Sat 8-12 and 1-5. Upon exiting the driveway, turn left and then right after 0.1 mile on to a well-maintained gravel road. You are now on the Buffalo Ranch. Much of the ranch has been cleared of trees and shrubs and at first appears to be devoid of bird life. But pay close attention. The barren fields hold Savannah Sparrow, American Pipit, meadowlark, and occasional Horned Lark and Grasshopper Sparrow. The Brazos Bottoms provide one of the best habitats to practice differentiating Eastern and Western Meadowlark, as both occur here, perhaps in equal numbers. In addition to the song differences (often not heard in winter), listen for the call notes, described in the National Geographic Society Field Guide as a high, buzzy drzzt for the Eastern and a low, throaty, explosive chuck for the Western.

Continuing 1.3 miles along the gravel farm road takes you to a pair of high and low-water bridges (milepost 14). Common Yellowthroat, Rusty Blackbird and other marsh birds have been spotted in the reeds beside the bridges. Northern Harriers frequent the area as well as the open fields, gliding low and showing their white rumps. Flying overhead or grazing in the fields to your right, you should begin to see and hear wintering Sandhill Cranes. You should get a better look as you round the bend (milepost 16.3), crossing a cattle guard. Over 500 cranes have wintered consistently on the ranch. Their graceful flight and appealing call are well worth the trip alone. Quite often the cranes are visible from FM 50 without driving on private land. Both blue and white forms of Snow Goose sometimes winter here also, depending on weather conditions. Anytime you observe Snow Geese, check carefully for Ross’ Goose intermixed with the flock. This area is also the spot where ranch workers and a Christmas Bird Count have reported Burrowing Owl sightings. Watch for long-legged owls perching on fence posts or the open ground . At the culvert (and other drainage ditches) scan for Greater Yellowlegs, Least Sandpiper, Killdeer and, in spring migration, Northern Waterthrush. When you reach the residences at milepost 16 take another look at the Sandhill Cranes and then consider turning back. The road continues another mile until meeting a chained gate. Along the way you should see huge flocks of Great-tailed Grackles feeding among the cattle. These wintering flocks feed daily in the Brazos Bottoms but wing home at dusk to roost in the city on the Texas A&M campus.

Back on FM 50 continue south (right) to an unmarked farm road on the left side. This road heads to the Brazos River, passing farmland on either side. When driving through this area and much of the Brazos Bottoms, be aware of road conditions. In wet weather the red clay roads become slipperier than ice, even for 4-wheel drive vehicles. A particularly good spot for passerines is a wet and wooded crossing of Middle Bayou, about a mile in from FM 50. After the crossing the flat farmland again prevails. This area and much of the Brazos Bottoms is good locale in Fall migration to watch large kettles of hawks, particularly Swainson’s, circling lazily as they wing their way south. In winter the predominant raptors of the Bottoms are Turkey and Black Vulture, Red-tailed Hawk, N. Harrier, Am. Kestrel, Loggerhead Shrike, an occasional Crested Caracara and, near the river, Red-shouldered Hawk and the Accipiters, Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawk. Rarer possibilities include Osprey and Rough-legged Hawk.

Many other Farm and Market roads and county roads wind through the bottoms. Each offers a slightly different habitat. Wet areas yield Swamp Sparrow, Marsh and Sedge Wren, Red-winged Blackbird, and Brewer’s Blackbird.   Heavily wooded wet areas adjacent to the Brazos River are prime for startling an American Woodcock and sometimes watching it at rest when it lands. From your current position you have three choices to continue your birding trip. (1) Head north on FM 50 past FM 60 through Sims and Mudville and taking Sandy Point Road (FM 1687) across the Little Brazos River to birding spots at Lake Bryan. (2) Alternatively, from FM 50 head west on 1361 toward Somerville to explore the reservoir birding areas. (3) Head back on FM 60 to the Brazos River and pursue our first stop, the Butler Bayou Annex of Buffalo Ranch.

Species List for Brazos Bottoms

Pied-billed Grebe, American White Pelican, Double-crested Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Cattle Egret, Green Heron, White-faced Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Stork, Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Snow Goose, Canada Goose, Tundra Swan, Wood Duck, Mallard, Mottled Duck, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Green-winged Teal, Gadwall, Redhead, Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead, Hooded Merganser, Ruddy Duck, Osprey, White-tailed Kite, Mississippi Kite, Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper's Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Swainson's Hawk, White-tailed Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk, Crested Caracara, American Kestrel, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, Northern Bobwhite, American Coot, Sandhill Crane, American Golden-Plover, Killdeer, American Avocet, Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper, Upland Sandpiper, Long-billed Curlew, Ruddy Turnstone, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Baird's Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher, Common Snipe, American Woodcock, Franklin's Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Black Tern, Rock Dove, Mourning Dove, Common Ground-Dove, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Barn Owl, Great Horned Owl, Burrowing Owl, Chimney Swift, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Belted Kingfisher, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecke, Northern Flicker, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Acadian Flycatcher, Least Flycatcher, Black Phoebe, Eastern Phoebe, Vermilion Flycatcher, Western Kingbird, Eastern Kingbird, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Loggerhead Shrike, White-eyed Vireo, Blue Jay, American Crow, Horned Lark, Tree Swallow, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Bank Swallow, Cliff Swallow, Cave Swallow, Barn Swallow, Carolina Chickadee, White-breasted Nuthatch, Carolina Wren, House Wren, Sedge Wren, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Eastern Bluebird, Hermit Thrush, Gray Catbird, Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, European Starling, American Pipit, Sprague's Pipit, Orange-crowned Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Mourning Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Wilson's Warbler, Canada Warbler, Summer Tanager, Field Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Lark Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Le Conte's Sparrow, Henslow's Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Lincoln's Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Harris's Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, McCown's Longspur, Lapland Longspur, Northern Cardinal, Pyrrhuloxia, Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Painted Bunting, Dickcissel, Red-winged Blackbird, Eastern Meadowlark, Western Meadowlark, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Brewer's Blackbird, Rusty Blackbird, Common Grackle, Great-tailed Grackle, Brown-headed Cowbird, Orchard Oriole, House Finch, American Goldfinch, and House Sparrow.  (166 species).