by Tracy Cheney – photos by Greg Lavaty
Every major city flaunts a zoo and a plethora of museums and theaters. But how many boast a rookery of mating spoonbills ringed by a moat of patrolling alligators? Perched at the bottom of the continent on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico, here in the environs of Houston, you’ll find some of the best bird-watching anywhere in the world.
One wouldn’t naturally assume this about the fourth-largest city in the United States, the home of NASA and the Astros baseball franchise. But an hour east of town, tucked into a tiny pocket of woods, a remarkable bird spectacle hatches every spring. You don’t have to be an avid bird-watcher to be awed by this sight and by the clattering racket at Smith Oaks Rookery on minuscule High Island.
To the uninitiated, the spoonbill is a mismatched-looking creature. As if that long bill with a spatula attached weren’t enough, a palette of pinks and ruby red splashes across its feathers and a rainbow-inspired tail complete the ensemble. No wonder the birds were nearly hunted to extinction—their exotic plumage adorned the hats of elegant 19th century ladies.
As these brilliant birds soar overhead, a feeling of being transported to an ancient time and place descends upon the audience planted on the observatory platform. Tucking in their four-foot wingspans to settle into huge nests of sticks, the feathery parents tend to their fluff-ball chicks.
Besides spoonbills, other large water birds such as egrets, cormorants, and herons sway in nests built on branches and reeds. Thousands of nesting birds are crammed among the trees. Then each evening, a crowd of new migrants flies in to shelter—over 600 species of birds ply the central flyway corridor. There’s no rest in this neighborhood.
Down below the bustle, ever-vigilant sentries lurk at the water’s edge. The gators scare off other predators so they can snatch up any unwary fledglings or adults fluttering out of the nest. Such age-old dramas have played out for eons, long before human observers began trickling here in the 1940s.
As with any valuable piece of real estate, location is everything. To migrating birds heading home for the summer, this fringe of trees, or anything somewhat vertical along the coast, is a godsend. Each spring, these intrepid travelers gather on the Yucatan Peninsula directly across from Houston.
Setting off at sunset, it takes them a good eighteen hours to cross 600 miles of open gulf waters.
Arriving in the afternoon, many hungry, exhausted birds drop down onto the first upright shrubs and clumps of trees they spy. At any other time of the year, it’s easy to overlook this nondescript vegetation. But surviving as it does, surrounded by thousands of acres of horizontal marshland and prairies, this unassuming foliage is prime real estate in the spring.
Birds have been congregating in the High Island region since the Ice Age. The Houston Audubon Society purchased this remnant of habitat to ensure that continuity. From March to May, the area is an energetic junction. It’s not just the birds that flock to the same trees every year—their throngs of binoculared fans from all across the country rally to them as well.
Driving directions to High Island bird sanctuaries:
From Houston, take I-10 east to Winnie. Exit south on Hwy. 124.
From the Galveston area, take the free Bolivar Ferry to the Bolivar Peninsula. Drive up the coast on Hwy. 87 approximately 30 miles. Turn left on Hwy. 124.
Once on High Island, look for signage posted at Boy Scout Woods for directions to four local sanctuaries. The Audubon Society charges a modest $5.00 daily fee or $25.00 for an unlimited yearly pass. This helps support their entire 3,000 acres of sanctuaries scattered around the Houston vicinity.
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