Love is in the air – High Island, TX
Did I get your attention? I’m talking about birdie love, of course, and we got an eyeful on this stop! If you’re a birder, bird watcher/photographer or a nature enthusiast read on, because that’s what this post is all about.
Our first stop in Texas was at High Island. Ever since our friends Eric and Laurel had blogged about their visit here, it became a must-do for me. Although they advised a visit during peak migration time in April, our own migration called for us to be west of the Mississippi by then to avoid the worst severe spring weather. Fortunately, an excellent show was already unfolding when we arrived!
In addition to the five sanctuaries managed by the Houston Audobon on High Island, we also visited Bolivar Flats Sanctuary east of Galveston and the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge north of High Island. There’s no such thing as too many bird sanctuaries!
Our first foray led us into Anahuac Wildlife Refuge. Instead of driving the auto drive we walked it, allowing us to burn some calories from our previous cajun country food experience. This is supposedly the only refuge in Texas with alligators, and we saw many young and old ones lurking in the water and hiding along the reeds. But it was the thousands of birds near and far that got my heart pumping!
The hot pink babes were flying over, what a sight!
To see thousands of shorebirds wintering at Bolivar Peninsula, we had to get up early and during low tide at three locations; at Bolivar Flats, at the north jetty and at Rollover Pass. This is when countless birds can be seen feeding on the mud flats. The downside was that many of them were too far away for my camera lens to reach. But we still enjoyed watching them feasting from a distance.
After visiting those outlying sanctuaries we turned our focus to the five bird sanctuaries at High Island. Fortunately, most of them were within walking distance of our campground so I could visit several times during our stay.
High Island is one of the most popular birding destinations in the U.S. during spring. It’s a natural refuge (and layover) for weary migrating birds traveling from the Yucatan Peninsula, across the Gulf of Mexico and up to their northern summer homes here and in Canada. The town is small with a population of only about 500, but that number swells from around April 1st to May 15th when birdwatchers descend. The sanctuary recorded 28,000 visitors in 2018!
The sanctuaries are fee sites, with $8 per person per day giving access to all five of them. But I purchased the $30 patch which gave me unlimited admission during our stay. Having seen how well maintained and managed the sanctuaries are, it was totally worth it. One spot to see migrant birds is Boy Scout Woods, where crowds of serious birders congregate during peak times. Even though spring migration was not yet in full swing, I managed to spot two tiny skittish birds that are difficult to capture:
Our attention was also drawn to Smith Oaks Rookery, a 142-acre sanctuary that provides critical habitat for resident and migratory birds. This was our first up-close visit to a large rookery, and we were blown away! Hundreds of Herons, Egrets, Cormorants and Roseate Spoonbills build their nests and raise their chicks on this predator-free island. There are also some nice hiking paths here that lead around new areas being developed for even more nesting birds.
From a platform, we were voyeurs watching a live love show, a natural performance on an island. There was non-stop comings and goings of birds hunting for sticks to build nests, all the while displaying themselves for courtship. They were extremely active and noisy – there was so much going on that I didn’t know where to focus my camera!
The birds unabashedly displayed their showy breeding plumage, and each one had their own way of conducting the “stick hunt” for nest building.
These guys were the noisiest, emitting an “oinking” sound:
Also nicknamed “Yellow Slippers” because of their yellow feet, these birds are a common sight around ponds and lakes. I learned that they’re actually a small heron, all white in color except during breeding season when their facial color turns from yellow to red and their legs to an orange-yellow hue:
The lacy courtship of snowy beaux is fascinating to watch. Males perform most of the displays, involving preening the wings, ducking the head, holding and shaking twigs in the bill, and stretching the neck.
This unique and gorgeous species is my favorite big bird, and I was ecstatic to be observing them up close. In their breeding plumage, they have bold scarlet shoulders, a very bright pink-orange tail, an orange ring around the eyes, dark red legs and a white/grey bill. Wow!
During courtship, the pink babes initially interact aggressively. I found them perched together, crossing and clasping their bills. They also participate in stick hunts, presenting gathered sticks to each other.
Crossing and clasping bills, a tender moment during courtship:
The pink pigments in the Roseate Spoonbill’s plumage come from its diet of shrimp, crabs and other crustaceans.
Of all the courtship and mating dances, my favorite was that of the Great Egret. It was like watching a ballet, slow and majestically choreographed. It was wonderful to witness these magnificent and beautiful creatures in their natural breeding environment.
Next up: Heading for the Hills!