As I mentioned in my previous post, there are a number of migrant oases dotted along the Gulf Coast which can be good for seeing neotropical migrants winging their way past. I visited a several of them, from the South Padre Island Convention Center to Lafitte’s Cove near Galveston all the way to Peveto Woods in southwestern Louisiana.
But some of the oldest and most famous coastal migrant traps are the Houston Audubon Society’s nature preserves in the tiny town of High Island. Boy Scout Woods and Smith Oaks have been attracting birds and bird watchers to this section of the Texas coast for decades.
When the north wind blows, Boy Scout Woods can blow your mind with an incredible diversity and sheer numbers of birds. While I was there, a moderate southeast wind was predominant; good weather for migrating, and many birds overflew the coast riding the favorable tailwind, stopping miles inland at larger tracts of favorable habitat. Even under these conditions, the sanctuaries at High Island produced a slow but steady influx of warblers, tanagers, buntings, and orioles. And while small songbirds (known more formally as passerines) are the usual highlight at High Island, the sanctuaries also play host to other kinds of migrating birds, like this nighthawk, who is trying to catch a quick nap before continuing on its migration once night falls again.
High Island also serves another function, a more social one for us humans. It is one of the great Meccas of the birding world. All serious birders eventually make the pilgrimage to High Island, and it’s a great place to meet and talk to other birders. Some of them are from up the street, and some of them are from Europe, South America, or Australia. Some are first timer newbie birders who marvel at the local Cardinals, and some are grizzled veterans who can ID a flying Prothonotary Warbler from 200 yards away, just by its ‘chip’ call note.
The grandstand area is the grand central station of the High Island birding community. Audubon memberships and t-shirts are bought and sold. Wooden bleachers have been set up near a small pond, a water drop, and a fruiting mulberry tree. Birds and birders circulate there throughout the day to see and be seen.
There is a network of trails and boardwalks that go throughout the property, which travel through a couple of different habitats from weedy fields to mature stands of oak.
The sanctuaries use to host several dozen hundred-year old oak trees, but many of them were damaged or killed by a series of hurricanes that included Ike and Rita. While they are different places now with many of the big trees gone, the High Island sanctuaries are still good for birds, and a new generation of trees is growing up.
Of course, there are many species of birds who are on tremendous journeys of their own for whom trees and bushes offer no respite at all. Shorebirds like sandpipers, plovers, godwits, and curlews need open fields, mudflats, and beaches to feed and rest. Houston Audubon is doing its part to help these birds as well, and I spent an afternoon at their Bolivar Flats tidelands preserve a dozen miles or so south of High Island on the coast.
There I got to see thousands of shorebirds taking a break from their epic trips. Some of these birds “winter” in Patagonia (during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer!) at the southern tip of South America and breed at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northern Alaska.
This Red Knot is just transitioning into his rusty summer plumage.
I saw many, many Willets, including this one who was doing a dance (I think it was the Willet Hokey Pokey):
Each shorebird was hanging out in its own preferred habitat. This Long-billed Curlew stalked the waterline:
A Hudsonian Godwit fed in the grass:
And Wilson’s Plovers loafed in the dry sand up the beach:
Protecting this habitat is vitally important for migrating shorebirds. Yes, they can travel 10,000 miles in matter of weeks. But they can’t do it if they don’t have rest and refueling stations along the way. If the entire Gulf Coast succumbs to beach condos and oil refineries, these shorebirds will be squeezed out of existence.
Fortunately, groups like Houston Audubon, the Nature Conservancy, and the Texas Ornithological Society are fighting to preserve important sections of coastline, and the birds who call this area home. One way to learn more about shorebirds and their amazing migrations is to band them. Researchers place tiny plastic and metal bands on the birds’ legs, and use them to track the birds along their migration route. I was fortunate enough to spot a banded Piping Plover, and used the internet to report my sighting to the ornithologists who banded it. If you look closely, you can see the red and white bands on its legs in the picture below:
My trip to Texas is winding up, and it is time to go home and spend some time with my family. Soon, it will also be time to finish planning my next adventure: Florida and the Dry Tortugas.