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Bountiful Birds

Destination - Galveston

By Larry D. Hodge

Travel time from:

  • Amarillo - 11 hours /
  • Austin - 4.5 hours /
  • Brownsville - 7 hours /
  • Dallas - 5 hours /
  • El Paso - 13 hours /
  • Houston - 1 hours /
  • San Antonio - 4.5 hours

Hawks - hundreds of them - soared overhead, one wave after another.

It was four days after the autumnal equinox, and Hurricane Isidore was stirring things up in Louisiana. But on the upper Texas Coast the only effect of the hurricane was a strong wind, which made the migrating hawks fly lower than they would on windless days.

I was standing atop a wooden tower at Smith Point, which juts out into Trinity Bay not far from the town of Anahuac. This is one of the great places in Texas to watch migrating raptors in the fall. Hawks are reluctant to fly over open water, where thermals are absent. So they hug the Texas Coast as they head south for the winter; some go as far as Argentina. The 20-foot-tall hawk-watch tower is situated at the Candy Abshier Wildlife Management Area.

Erin O'Brien of Hawkwatch International was in the tower counting migrating raptors and answering questions from visitors. Hawkwatch International and the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory provide staff to monitor the fall migration from August 15 to November 15 each year. Most of the birds flying over when I was there were broad-winged hawks, which breed from southern Canada to the eastern United States and winter in South America. On that day in late September, the chalkboard showing each day's activities showed that O'Brien and her colleagues had counted 37,000 broadwings since the count began on August 15. The day before my visit they had spotted 4,000.

O'Brien pointed out two Mississippi kites and a Swainson's hawk, distinguished from the broadwings by its brown breast and the indistinct bands on the tail. I had missed seeing a rare peregrine falcon the day before; peregrines generally increase toward the end of October. When the count ended in mid-November, 80,978 raptors of 18 species had passed over Smith Point.

From Smith Point I headed to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge a few miles to the east. An information station just inside the refuge gate contains a guide to the area and a bird checklist. A sign at a nearby pond warns visitors to beware of alligators which are often seen in the canals that border the driving trail.

A great egret greeted me at the entrance to the Shoveler Pond loop, a driving trail that provides easy access to shorebirds, waders and rails and, in the winter, shovelers and other ducks and geese. I saw snowy egrets, least bitterns, white ibises, tricolored, little blue and great blue herons and a lone purple gallinule. A viewing platform with ID charts helps the novice birdwatcher make identifications. The driving trail continues through salt marsh and alongside woodlands that fill with warblers in the spring. A sign at the Yellow Rail Prairie says that a visitor might see all six of the secretive North American rails here, but I wasn't so lucky. The trail ends at East Bay. Far over the water, a large bird with long wings drifted into view. With binoculars I discerned a long, forked tail and angular wings. It was a magnificent frigatebird, a pelagic bird only occasionally seen near land.

Leaving the Anahuac refuge I connected with State Highway 87 and traveled down Bolivar Peninsula to the ferry landing. The granite jetties glistened in the setting sun as the ferry carried me toward Galveston for the night.

The next morning I headed back across the ferry and drove 27 miles up Bolivar Peninsula to High Island. While I'm reasonably adept at spotting - and sometimes identifying - large wading birds and large flying birds, I'm lost when it comes to warblers in trees. But I'd enlisted my friend Bob Behrstock, birder extraordinaire, to meet me at one of the Houston Audubon Society sanctuaries in the High Island area.

From Highway 87, High Island - population 500 - looks like hundreds of other small Texas towns, with a gas station, a motel and a water tower sporting the name of the high school football team, the High Island Cardinals. The town is not an island, but it is high. It sits on a salt dome 38 feet above sea level, making it the highest point on the Gulf of Mexico between Mobile, Alabama, and Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. High Island's woodlands are the first thing many migrating songbirds see each spring. And with the birds come the birders, thousands of them from all over the country. The Houston Audubon Society bought the first land for a High Island sanctuary in 1980; since then, a multi-agency effort has placed more than 200 acres in High Island's sanctuary system.

Spring migration is brief and intense, but fall migration, when birds wing their way to wintering grounds in Mexico and South America, is more drawn-out and leisurely. Bob met me at the Louis Smith/Boy Scout Woods sanctuary, and we strolled the boardwalk into the dense hackberry/oak woodlands. He helped me find and identify a brown thrasher, white-eyed vireo, Carolina wren, Wilson's warbler and blue-gray gnatcatcher.

That afternoon, heading down Highway 87 toward Bolivar Flats, we spotted a merlin perched on a post. This beautiful little falcon obligingly sat for a minute or more, allowing us to admire it.

From previous visits, I knew Bolivar Flats to be an extraordinary place to see birds. With a beach, tidal flats and salt marshes, it is considered one of the 20 most important shorebird wintering sites in North America; more than 100,000 birds have been seen here on a single day. We saw snowy plovers, willets, royal and Caspian terns, black skimmers, ruddy turnstones, sanderlings, a northern harrier and a horned lark, the only lark native to the New World.

The next morning I set out to explore the birding sites on Galveston Island: East Beach and Big Reef Nature Park, an extensive dune and marsh community at the entrance to Galveston Bay; Offat Bayou, a deep bayou popular with fishermen as well as fishing birds; 8-Mile Road and Sportsman's Road, north-south roads that cross Galveston Island and are good birding sites all year, but especially in the spring.

I ended up at Galveston Island State Park, about halfway down the island. Walking along the Gulf beach I spotted spoonbills, herons and gulls among the wade fishermen and sunbathers. Across FM 3005 is the bay section of the park, which is bigger and different in character from the Gulf side. An extensive wetlands restoration project here has produced 130 acres of new intertidal marshes and 100 acres of seagrass beds.

The afternoon was heating up, so I headed indoors to the pyramids of Moody Gardens, a 282-acre educational tourist destination. It consists of three colorful pyramids surrounded by lush vegetation: the Rainforest Pyramid, Aquarium Pyramid and Discovery Pyramid.

Inside the 10-story, glass Rainforest Pyramid, the air is humid and the vegetation is thick. The surge of a waterfall is audible in the distance. Colorful butterflies alight on leaves and branches and the calls of tropical birds ring through the forest. Macaws and toucans perch in the trees, hard to spot sometimes in the thick foliage. Inside a bat cave I saw tropical fruit bats. Tiny, brightly colored orange and yellow frogs inside a display case look as if they're made of plastic, but they're highly toxic.

The Aquarium Pyramid brings together marine life from the North and South Pacific, the South Atlantic and the Caribbean, and contains more than 10,000 marine animals, from tiny seahorses to sharks and rays. Penguins, waddling from spot to spot in their tuxedo-like plumage, are the highlight of the South Atlantic section.

The third pyramid, the hot-pink Discovery Pyramid, is filled with hands-on exhibits, theaters and rides to make learning about science fun for children.

Back at Galveston Island State Park, the sun was low as I set out on a boardwalk toward an observation platform over the marsh. A least bittern skimmed across the water and I spotted a handsome black skimmer and various terns. A stocky, black-and-white heron turned out to be a black-crowned night-heron, which roosts during the day and forages at night.

As I drove toward the park exit, a large bird perched on a post caught my eye. Using my car as a blind, I alternately studied the bird with binoculars and flipped through my field guide. The bird was huge, probably two feet tall or more. It was brown on the back, white on the breast and had a distinctive dark stripe running from its eye to the back of its head. The light was growing dim inside the car when finally I found it - an osprey. The bird took wing and, to my surprise and pleasure, flew toward me, circled above my car and then headed out over the marsh, its brown plumage fading into the darkening sky.

Birding Galveston

Galveston is holding its first-ever birding festival this year, Galveston Island FeatherFest, scheduled for April 3-6. For information contact the Galveston Island Convention and Visitors Bureau at (888) GAL-ISLE or www.galvestonfeatherfest.com.

Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge will offer Yellow Rail Walks on weekends from March 29 to April 19. See page 44 for information, or call (409) 267-3337. For general information about Anahuac, go to http://southwest.fws.gov/refuges/texas/anahuac.html

All the birding sites mentioned in this story - and dozens more - are on the upper coast section of the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail. To request a map call (888) TXBIRDS or e-mail naturetourism@tpwd.state.tx.us. For information about specific sites, use the following contact information:

  • Galveston Island State Park, (409) 737-1222, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/spdest/findadest/parks/galveston/
  • High Island and Bolivar Flats: Houston Audubon Society, (713) 932-1639, www.houstonaudubon.org
  • Moody Gardens is open daily. Call (800) 582-4673 or go to www.moodygardens.com.

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