Illustration © Bryan Spear
THE HOPEFUL HEART OF THE HUMMINGBIRD
Tourists and ‘hummerbirds’ return to Rockport after Harvey’s punch.
by Dan Oko • Photos by Sonja Sommerfeld
As Hurricane Harvey wound its way across the Gulf of Mexico in August 2017, Rockport schoolteacher Martha McLeod and her neighbors prepped for the storm. Like residents up and down the Texas coast, she and husband Scott, a game warden in Aransas County, went through the familiar routine: battening down their home for the coming gale, stockpiling food and water. Because Scott’s a first responder, they ignored the calls for voluntary evacuation.
A few hours after sundown on Friday, Aug. 25, Harvey made landfall at San Jose Island, and winds topping 125 miles per hour shook the McLeod house.
“‘Till death do us part’ took on new seriousness while we held hands in complete darkness,” Martha recalls.
McLeod and her husband survived with no substantial damage to their home, but after a few days, Martha — and the area’s other avid birders — had something new to worry about. Every September, thousands of hummingbirds stop over in Rockport-Fulton to prepare for the hardest leg of their migration, across the Gulf. They depend on the area’s proffered nectar feeders to increase their body weight by 50 percent in order to survive.
“Everything was stripped clean,” recalls HummerBird Celebration chair Glenn Gomez after the storm. “There was no food, no leaves on the trees.”
The storm shredded gardens and blew away the oak cups formed by emergent acorns, which hold a high-calorie sap for the birds. With people displaced and many residents without a home, few souls were around to feed the birds, which for generations had relied on human help during migration. Friends of the festival sent cash, feeders and much-needed sugar to provide the nectar-like solution.
“There was a huge effort to bring in hundreds of feeders, and those feeders saw traffic like we’ve never seen before,” Gomez recalls.
Martha McLeod noticed that hundreds of hummingbirds were hanging out in her yard near Goose Island State Park.
“They started showing up like a well-choreographed musical,” she says. “I was mowing the brush around the house, and they were landing nearby, looking at me, like, ‘Lady, where’s my feeder?’”
Hummingbirds visit feeders at the McLeod home in Rockport.
I heard McLeod retell this story last September at the opening of the 30th annual HummerBird Celebration in Rockport-Fulton. Organizers canceled the 2017 festival, and the 2018 event got everyone back together just after the first anniversary of Hurricane Harvey.
I was eager to join in the celebration. Like many Texans, I have long enjoyed vacationing, fishing and birding around the Rockport-Fulton area. The whooping cranes had not yet arrived to spend the winter among the marshes of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge — also still recovering from Harvey’s wrath — but I wanted to explore the Aransas Pathways, a county program that maps recreational opportunities (such as hiking, biking and kayaking) as well as historic sites like the landmark Fulton Mansion.
I stopped by the Rockport Center for the Arts, still operating despite a massive blow from Harvey. There are plenty of galleries in town, but for nearly 50 years, the center has been a focal point for many artists inspired by the salt-tinged scenery of the Coastal Bend. The original, longtime home of the center was destroyed in the storm, but while waiting to rebuild, exhibitors landed in a secondary property. A $5 million economic development grant secured in March will underwrite design and construction of a new sculpture garden and exhibition space, as well as a performing arts venue. The many colorful paintings of coastal scenes and wading birds on display spoke to a bright future.
Before heading out on the home and garden tour, I toured the History Center for Aransas County, a small museum located in a Queen Anne-style home built in 1896. The house survived not just Hurricane Harvey, but also the hurricane of 1919, which produced a similar wake of destruction. The house has been renovated and now features exhibitions about the area’s nature and culture. I spent a long time in a room dedicated to Connie Hagar, the first lady of Texas birding, who — long before there was a HummerBird Celebration — noted the peculiar migration patterns of hummingbirds and their avian allies.
All along the way, it was good to see the people of Rockport and Fulton coming back from such a brutal disaster. Sandy Jumper at the local chamber of commerce told me that the towns have recovered more than 75 percent of their lodging options, and more than 90 percent of the local businesses have reopened.
At Cyndi Kuhn’s place, full flowerbeds bloomed beneath mature live oaks, and she had just finished off her second 50-pound bag of sugar of the season, keeping all 29 feeders topped off. A certified Master Gardener, Kuhn was even giving away seedpods from her showy Pride of Barbados plants.
With an art festival in July, a film festival in November and a whooping crane festival in February, tourists are flocking back all year long, helping to bolster recovery.
A tropical depression brewed in the Gulf throughout the weekend of my visit, and it rained on and off. Some spots remained off-limits because of minor flooding. I opted to wander the lush 6.5-acre Connie Hagar Cottage Sanctuary, with a birding platform and a few looping trails through an upland marsh with a small oak motte and a span of coastal prairie, as well as a butterfly garden. Like Hagar herself, who stood under 5 feet tall, the plot is diminutive — she and husband Jack constructed a few guest cottages on the original 11 acres — but during peak migration, it’s a hot spot. As a sweet bay breeze blew, a light drizzle kept the birds tucked into the trees.
That night, tantalizing aromas and noisy chatter were drifting through Glow, a popular bistro that reopened after Harvey. The restaurant remains a beacon for diners interested in local eats, so I sampled wild boar-and-seafood gumbo and a moist black drum fillet.
Volunteers measure and document migrating hummingbirds.
The Rockport-Fulton sign welcomes visitors.
The Rockport Center for the Arts kept operations going in a new building after its original building suffered hurricane damage.
The Henderson Nature Site is part of the Aransas Pathways network.
Shops and restaurants beckon guests along Austin Street in Rockport's Heritage and Arts District.
The Connie Hagar Cottage Sanctuary attracts birds with a variety of habitats.
A mural and a board from Hurricane Harvey adorn a wall at Rowdy Maui.
HISTORY CENTER FOR ARANSAS COUNTY
Before heading home the next day, I checked out the festival banding station and found a crowd gathered around Sue Heath of the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory. While assistants trapped hummingbirds in cages across a private yard and carried them to her for banding, Heath shared information about the ruby-throats and other species.
There is no permanent pairing at nesting time for these birds. Ornithologists have found that hummingbirds have a split tongue, which uses grooves to split flowers and slurp nectar. Heath held a male ruby-throated hummingbird, weighing less than a nickel, in her hands and allowed us to feel the strange muttering vibration of its heartbeat with a single finger. A hummingbird heart can beat 1,200 times per minute. After everybody had a chance, she released the bird, and it vanished.
When squalls blew fishing guide Eric Knipling and me off the water the following morning, my thoughts circled back to Martha McLeod. That essay she read during the festival’s opening presentation earned her 2017 Birder of the Year honors from Swarovski Optik and Bird Watcher’s Digest. She closed the essay with this memorable line: “I realize, most of all, that hope can be found in something as small as a hummingbird, hope that there is still beauty in a town torn apart.”
Having experienced the tiny emerald dancers in Rockport-Fulton, I found it easy to embrace McLeod’s message. I had seen my adopted hometown of Houston likewise traumatized by the weather. But after putting my finger on the beating heart of the hummingbird, I was reminded of something more.
Following Harvey, many Texans perceived the natural world with new eyes. I took in the startling sight of the Milky Way, now revealed above the catastrophe-darkened city once the clouds cleared, and the determined call of frogs mating in the pooled floodwater outside my door.
We are fortunate to live in a state with such sublime phenomena, and to have festivals that celebrate them. After all, keeping mindful of nature helps us endure.
The 31st HummerBird Celebration on Sept. 19-22, 2019, offers art installations, discussions about travel/ornithology and van tours to dozens of participating private homes and gardens. Dominated by ruby-throated hummingbirds — “hummerbirds” in the local parlance — the bright fliers don’t form true flocks but do converge before flying across the Gulf. Rockport-Fulton is a staging zone for several species that winter in Mexico and Central America, such as rufous, black-chinned and the rare Allen’s hummingbird.
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