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High Island beckons bird watchers

The Gulf Coast sanctuary is a refuge for more than 300 species of birds as well as other wildlife, including alligators.

March 29, 2009|Hugo Martin

HIGH ISLAND, TEXAS — As my airliner approached George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, the pilot declared the weather in southeastern Texas sunny, warm and mild.

Great, I thought, blue skies and gentle breezes. Just my luck.

My final destination was High Island, about 80 miles southeast of Houston on the Gulf Coast.

This mound of trees and shrubs, only a mile in diameter, has a reputation as one of the country's top birding sites. As an occasional bird watcher, I was drawn here by this reputation. But I was rooting for a storm because, according to bird aficionados, the best bird watching on High Island takes place during, or just after, a storm front with strong northerly winds. Migrating birds -- warblers, orioles, thrushes and others -- struggle against the gusts as they fly north from the Yucatan Peninsula, 600 miles across the Gulf of Mexico.

When the exhausted birds reach the shore and spy the hospitable habitat, they sometimes fall from the sky. High Island is geographically suited for this phenomenon -- known as a fallout. From the air, High Island looks like a protrusion of trees, surrounded by flat, salty marshlands, an ideal resting spot for migrant birds.

After a storm, the wind-battered birds are so exhausted by the trans-gulf flight that they become almost oblivious to bird watchers. Enthusiasts who have seen a fallout told me that you can almost pick up and pet the exhausted birds. I felt guilty for wishing such conditions on these innocent creatures. But it's a centuries-old natural event, so why not take advantage of an opportunity to see some rare neotropical birds up close?

My visit to High Island in early March, however, taught me that Texas' unpredictable weather makes it difficult to plan to see a fallout.

Still, the abundance of wildlife here -- from gorgeous pink spoonbills to toothy alligators -- makes the trip worthwhile, even without a fallout. And even more surprising, I learned that the fury unleashed on the surrounding coastline six months ago by Hurricane Ike made this sanctuary only more inviting to native and transient creatures.


Technically speaking, High Island is neither an island nor high.

It rises about 30 feet above the nearby marshes and is surrounded by water only after a storm surge. The town of High Island, with a tuft of oaks, mulberry, cypress and hackberry trees, sits atop a salt dome that has pushed the soil up from thousands of feet below the surface.

Fewer than 500 Texans call High Island home, but at the height of migration season -- early March through mid-May -- thousands of birds rest and feed here before setting off to the Midwest and the eastern United States, although some fly as far as Alaska.

Packing a pair of binoculars, a digital camera and a field guide to North American birds, I drove to the Louis B. Smith Bird Sanctuary, a 45-acre patch of woods surrounded by quiet residential neighborhoods. (It's also known as Boy Scout Woods, because it was home to a Scout camp decades ago.) The Houston chapter of the Audubon Society owns four sanctuaries on the island, and the Texas Ornithological Society owns a fifth refuge.

Near the entrance, I met Andrew Beck, an Audubon sanctuary steward who agreed to give me a tour of the island. The 28-year-old doesn't fit the stereotype of a birder, a hobby that has become increasingly popular among baby boomers and retirees. Beck's father and uncle encouraged his love for birding, which started when he was a boy, he explained as he led me around the sanctuary's narrow trails.

It had been six months since Ike, a Category 2 hurricane, tore into the Texas coast, and the sanctuary was still a tangle of upturned trees, broken branches and snarled underbrush. Beck's job is to clear the trails and pull out the aggressive nonnative plants, such as Chinese privets, that can dominate the vegetation and replace berry-producing trees that feed birds year round.

That was but one of several side effects of the storm. After Ike wiped out habitat and fresh water sources along much of the coast, Beck said the remaining trees and freshwater ponds on High Island became even more attractive to alligators, snakes, armadillos and, most important, birds. Audubon officials have conducted no surveys to confirm this claim but have counted, for example, more than twice the number of alligators -- 30-plus -- than at any time in the past.

As Beck explained this, his attention was drawn to the treetops by the tweet, tweet, tweeting of a yellow-crowned warbler. "Each week we will be seeing more and more until mid- to late May," he said.

In the Boy Scout Woods, we walked along the dirt trails, stopping at several wood benches and small grandstands strategically located in front of small fountains and ponds where birds splashed and sipped water.

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