The Business Birder: Wingtips on High Island

 

 

The basic premise of the Business Birder is that you go where you have to and take what birds are available.  Life is like that, birding is only a microcosm of the bigger picture.  You are better off just accepting things that are out of your control.

 

Like this trip, when it took me fifteen hours to fly from one side of Texas to the other side and my luggage arrived about seventeen hours after I did.

 

I had planned a return trip to High Island, on Friday, April 6 through Sunday, April 8, using a free ticket on US Airways.  Later, I signed a new client in Lubbock and ended up scheduled to fly back from Lubbock to Wilmington on Thursday night only to leave on the earliest flight the following morning going back to Houston.  Well, I flew from Lubbock to Dallas and then to Charlotte and when I got to my gate in Charlotte, they were asking for volunteers to give up seats on my overbooked flight to Wilmington.  Are you with me so far?

 

Well I said to myself: “Self, why not go to Houston tonight?”  I explained my plight to the gate agent and they ended up sending me to Houston that night with not one but two free tickets in hand! 

 

So I managed to fly across Texas in 15 hours; roughly five more hours that if I had driven.  I left Central Time and returned to Central time.  Did I age an hour and then get it back?  Did this cause a slight tremble in the universe?  I wonder.

 

A small problem; my luggage did not arrive in Houston until Friday night and here I was in Houston on Thursday night.  I was staying at the Hilton in Beaumont, again using frequent traveler points, a long way from George Bush International.  US Airways promised to find my luggage and deliver it to the hotel.  And they did, after my first day of birding.   

 

I had my binoculars, field guide, and some of my research material with me in my briefcase.  Luckily, I had changed into kakis and a flannel shirt at the Lubbock airport but still had wingtips on (ok….Rockport but wingtips just the same).  I went birding that first day in my slightly soiled clothes, wingtips, and without shaving.  At least I had had a hot shower. 

 

I even had sunscreen protection in my briefcase…oops; the mosquito repellant was in my luggage.  At my first stop on High Island, the roadside park, I rolled down the window and it took approximately 3.7 nanoseconds for my rental car to fill up with mosquitoes.  I was killing them for the remainder of my trip.  In fact, when I returned the rental car to Avis late Sunday, there were still live mosquitoes in it. 

 

I proceeded to the Houston Audubon Society (HAS) High Island Boy Scout Sanctuary, which turned out to be no fun.  To say there was no fallout is a huge understatement; a “British” understatement.  Observed species included:  Brown Thrasher, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Red-winged Blackbird, and Cattle Egret.  I left High Island fairly quickly, heading for the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary.

 

I stopped at most of the sites on the Bolivar Loop of the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail - Upper Texas Coastal (UTC) section and number references to those sites from the trail map are included below.

 

My next stop was Rollover Pass (UTC #56) for the first time ever and I was astounded by the shorebirds.  Birds added included: Willet, Laughing Gull, Black Skimmer, Snowy Egret, Great Egret, Cormorant, Greater Yellowlegs, Reddish Egret, Great Blue Heron, Tri-colored Heron, Brown Pelican, Marbled Godwit, Roseate Spoonbill, American Oystercatcher, American Avocet, Ruddy Turnstone, Caspian Tern, Forster’s Tern, Black-necked Stilt, Sanderling, Clapper Rail, King Rail, Whimbrel, Dunlin, Barn Swallow, and Boat-tailed Grackle.  And I am sure I did not get every bird that was there.

 

The next stop, Yacht Basin Road (UTC #57), was also new to me.  I added:  Eastern Meadowlark, White Ibis, Purple Martin, and White-tailed Kite.  I enjoyed watching Willets eating along the side of the road, about 10 feet from my open window. 

 

On my way to the mud flats, I saw several Scissor-tailed Flycatchers on TX 87.  At the Port Bolivar area (UTC #60), I added: American Coot, White Pelican, Blue-winged Teal, and Loggerhead Shrike and then added Little Blue Heron, Glossy Ibis, Piping Plover, and Snowy Plover at Bolivar Flats (UTC#58).  These two sites were amazing because of the number of shorebirds.  Most of those listed for Rollover Pass above were also seen.  It was kind of special to have a Piping Plover and Snowy Plover together in the binoculars at the same time.

 

On Saturday morning, freshly shaven, bathed, and dressed (without wingtips), I headed to Texas Ornithological Society’s (TOS) Sabine Woods Sanctuary (UTC #26) near Port Arthur.  This site has been better for me that High Island.  Species recorded:  Belted Kingfisher, Northern Parula Warbler, Gray Catbird, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Downey Woodpecker, Northern Waterthrush, Eastern Kingbird, Orchard Oriole, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Yellow-throated Warbler, Black and White Warbler, American Redstart, White-throated Sparrow, Solitary Sandpiper, Tree Swallow, Worm-eating Warbler, and Water Moccasin Warbler. 

 

The Water Moccasin was between four and five feet long and slithered by very close to the Waterthrush and only about twenty feet from me.  I was temporarily distracted and lost sight of the Waterthrush.  I do not think the snake got it.  Later radar reports had a Northern Waterthrush flying over Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City at approximately ninety miles per hour.

 

On Sunday, I visited the HAS High Island Smith Oaks Sanctuary rookery and pond.  What an incredible sight!  I added Black-crowned Night Heron, Common Gallinule, Sora, Anhinga, and Wood Duck; however, the sheer number of birds roosting there was a sight to behold.  I flushed the Sora from one bank of a small canal and then was able to watch him for several minutes as he explored the other bank’s thick cover for a good hiding place. 

 

Next, I moseyed across the road to the HAS Gast Red Bay Sanctuary (UTC #54).  The map says “just sit quietly on the bench and let the birds come to you”.  There was a little pond and the bench.  I sat and I waited for a short while.  As far as I am concerned, this is one of the finest places in America to observe the Northern Cardinal.  Unfortunately, their staccato chirping kept all of the other birds stay away.  It must have been a warning.  So I left also. 

 

I next stopped at another site I had missed the year before.  The SE Oilfield Road and pond (part of UTC #55) is an excellent birding stop.  The road is a tough, gravel-and-pothole type of a road, only passable by HumVees and rental cars.  Ha, ha, just kidding, Avis.  But it is a little rough.  It is an excellent place to see a very diverse set of birds. 

 

The road lies between the Boy Scout Woods Sanctuary’s maritime forest and Texas Highway 87 and the ocean.  The Pond will be on the right about a mile down the road, between the gravel road and 87.  Ditches and mud flats are on the left.  There are no trees and a lot of open wire-grass fields.  Pssst, don’t tell anyone I said so but the remaining two-mile portion of TX87 that the last hurricane did not tear up is just past the barriers and can be accessed by driving a round the barrier. 

 

Depending on the sun, you may get a better look at the waterfowl on the pond from the broken portion of TX 87 instead of the gravel road.  But do the road also for all of the other species.  At this site, I added:  Spotted Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs, Savannah Sparrow, Northern Harrier, Gadwall, Northern Shoveler, American Wigeon, and Fulvous Whistling Duck.  Many of the species already noted above were also found.    

 

The trip turned out to be successful, considering the area had fairly strong southerly winds during all three days of my trip.  No fallout this year.  I am sure most of the trans-gulf migrants shot over our heads and kept going. 

 

And now for the haute cuisine part of my story.  I ate lunch a couple of times at the Subway at Crystal Beach, for mid-peninsular semi-healthy meal.  You know, Subway has branded itself as a healthy place to eat through via their television advertisements.  Somehow, my meatball sandwich seemed to be much more healthy than normal.

 

Saturday night, I had dinner at Pappadeaux Cajun Seafood (one exit toward Houston from the Hilton), including real Cajun seafood gumbo with sausage, oysters, okra, shrimp, rice, and plenty of the spicy stuff.  I wish I had not ordered the entrée.  I did.  It was a stuffed red snapper and it was wonderful!  I ate it all plus a couple of Pepcid AC “mints” later in the evening.

 

If you go, I would suggest preparing for the trip with some Web research.  I suggest starting with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), HAS, and TOS Websites at www.tpwd.state.tx.us, www.houstonaudubon.org, and www.texasbirds.org respectively.

 

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and Texas Department of Transportation jointly publish, in three sections, an excellent map for the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail.  For this trip, order the Upper Texas Coast section of the map from the TPWD Website or call 1-888-TXBIRDS.  The map notes rare bird alert phone numbers plus other valuable references. I also recommend the Texas Wildlife Viewing Guide by Gary Graham.

 

Texas Parks and Wildlife is one wonderful organization!  Of course, they co-sponsor the Birding Trail, along with the Texas Department of Transportation, and provide much more.   I used two of their publications:  “Migration and The Migratory Birds of Texas” and “On the Warblers of Texas”, which can be ordered from their Website. 

 

I also recommend the Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine (www.tpwmagazine.com).  The April issue seems to be the birding issue for the year.  In additional to some good birding articles, it contains the Great Texas Birding calendar for the year.

 

So you do not believe in research before your trip or your stuff is at home and you were rerouted?  Most of this material can be obtained immediately upon arriving at High Island at the HAS Boy Scout Sanctuary.  They have free local maps of the area and a wonderful used nature books sale at this sanctuary in April.  They also have “A Birder’s Checklist of the Upper Texas Coast”, published by the Houston Outdoor Nature Club, which will cost you a buck.   

 

My thanks always to the Houston Audubon Society, Texas Ornithological Society, Texas Parks and Wildlife, and Texas Department of Transportation for the Trail and the value they add to ecotourists (and business birders)!  I will be back again in 2002.

 

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The author, John Ennis, is a full time healthcare consultant and a part time birder, who wishes that it were the other way around.  He lives in the Wilmington, North Carolina area.  An average birder by any measurement, he is an authority on mosquito bites.  Ouch, how did that damn mosquito get into my briefcase?

John B. Ennis © 2001

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