Roseate Spoonbill roost at Smith Oaks, High Island
We’re parked for a week at Trinity Bay RV situated along Trinity Bay east of Houston. Our reasons for our choice of location are two-fold. First, it put us in the middle of some great upper Texas coast birding spots. And second, it put us within easier reach of the Houston Airport for our flight to Cozumel.
free ferry crossing at Port Bolivar
Carpet of wildflowers and Live Oak trees
We last visited the Texas coast in April 1999 when we flew down for a week of birding. April is typically the time of year when migration of neo-tropical migrants is at its best. Birds fly across the Gulf of Mexico and may pile up on the upper Texas and lower Louisiana coast to recoup, offering many bird watching opportunities.
Comparisons between our 1999 visit with 2010 have been stark mainly due to an event that occurred in September 2008. Hurricane Ike, the third costliest hurricane in U.S. history. Evidence of the damage is still easily visible. Coastal roads are still being reconstructed. Towns like Crystal Beach and High Island still bear many of storm scars. The local economy is struggling. Many businesses are either out of business or in the midst of rebuilding. It will take years to bounce back.
The local birding landscape was changed significantly from what we recalled in 1999. Wide-spread destruction of vegetation and erosion had impacted many ecosystems. One might think that a vast salt marsh like Anahuac National Wildlife Area would not have suffered much until we spoke with David Sarkozi, an active member of the Friends of Anahuac NWR who has been leading Yellow Rail walks at the refuge for the past 15 years. David described the amount of debris left on the refuge following the storm surge. Automobiles and boats (along with associated oil, diesel fuel and gasoline), thousands of aerosol paint cans and prescription medicine bottles. Most of the large items have been removed but we still saw many pieces of debris like parts of surfboards sticking up out of the marsh. Toxic building materials containing lead-based paints or asbestos are still present in harder to reach areas.
David went on to explain that the surge of salt water raised the salinity level in the marsh so high that it dramatically impacted food sources for resident and native animal species. On the positive side, David continued, the sudden and dramatic rise in salinity has killed off many of the invasive plant species prompting park biologists to begin an aggressive planting of native species. The impact upon non-native plant species is quite the opposite at properties maintained by Houston Audubon at High Island. Many invasive plants gained a foothold when native species were destroyed.
bleachers for viewing "the drip" - birds attracted to
a water feature at Boy Scout Woods
a water feature at Boy Scout Woods
Boy Scout Woods, High Island
For the second year in a row, Tropical Birding has established a small office (plus built an observation tower) to help promote the area. Tropical Birding is the company we have used for our trips to Ecuador so it was like old home week meeting up again with the company’s owner, Iain Campbell and several of the Tropical Birding guides including Sam Woods, Charley Hesse, and Micheal Retter. Tropical Birding is conducting free daily bird trips at High Island and to Bolivar Flats throughout the month of April.
Carol and Sam Woods, Tropical Birding guide
Birding at High Island has been slow thus far. But the intensity of migration is expected to pick up by mid-April. While Hurricane Ike did quite a bit of wind damage to vegetation, the storm surge was mitigated somewhat by the fact that High Island sits atop a salt dome making it the highest point of the Gulf of Mexico (38-feet above sea level). What remaining vegetation there is makes the landmark even more attractive to migrating neo-tropicals. Birds we've spotted here and there at High Island include: Summer and Scarlet Tanagers, Orchard Orioles, and nesting/roosting birds like Roseate Spoonbills. Blue-winged Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Indigo Bunting, and reports of Yellow-billed Cuckoo.
Further up the coast at Bolivar Flats the story is quite different. Rebuilding of beachfront homes on stilts is ongoing although one questions the wisdom of rebuilding (or even having built in the first place) in such obviously hurricane-prone locations. There is also the question of rebuilding on the gulf side of the highway which will further restrict public beach access. Many foundations of destroyed buildings are evident and probably never will be rebuilt.
Walking out to Rollover Pass exposed mud flats
Another section along the beach is Rollover Pass. Warren, a neighbor here in Trinity Bay RV, and a native of Anahuac, described the first time he saw Rollover Pass following Ike. He drove right past it because the area was so unrecognizable. Today Rollover Pass on the bay side is better for water and shorebird observations. At low tide on Monday afternoon Carol and I backed our truck to the edge of the water, dropped the tailgate and sat and ate our lunch. Two American Oystercatchers dropped in and sat within twenty yards. Semipalmated, Wilson’s, Piping and Snowy Plovers fed on exposed flats. Black Simmers, Laughing Gulls, Gull-billed Terns, Sandwich Terns, Least Terns, and clouds of Dunlin entertained us. Several Marbled Godwits, American Avocets (now in breeding plumage), Royal and Caspian Terns, Western Sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderlings, and Reddish Egrets were added to the mix. Red Knots are just starting to be reported.
On Tuesday morning we drove to Sam Houston National Forest for Swainson’s Warblers. While we found a number of them singing we caught only the briefest of glimpses. More obvious were Hooded Warblers and Pine warblers. En route to Sam Houston NF at a small county park we caught up with Northern Parula and Prothonotary Warblers. But as with High Island the bulk of migration has yet to occur.
While we whiffed on our attempt to find Yellow Rails at Anahuac NWR we have enjoyed several close-up encounters with King and Clapper Rails, and Marsh and Sedge Wrens. Seaside Sparrows abound.
Great Egret with Roseate Spoonbills,
Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island
Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island
Thursday we leave for Houston to catch our flight to Cozumel. We have decided to delay our departure from Anahuac after our return from Mexico by a day before departing for Louisiana. The strong possibility of higher concentrations of migrants at High Island's Boy Scout Woods is too much to resist. Since we are now more flexible with our travel schedule we can make such changes. A far cry from our 1999 visit.