Extra Special Birding - High Island, Texas

With the advent of spring tomorrow, I thought it would be a good time to write about my experiences at one of my all time favorite birding locations - High Island Texas.

If you are unfamiliar with High Island, it is special because it is a piece of land that is literally bowed up by a rising salt formation below it (i.e. the surface manifestation of a subsurface salt dome). As such, it allows for the growth of oak trees and other vegetation amidst the coastal marshes. This turns out to be a magnet for migrating passerines who have just made the long trip over the Gulf of Mexico.

I lived in Houston from August, 1981 to December, 1986. Back then, of course, there was no Internet, so in order to find out where the birding action was I phoned the Houston Audobon Society (HAS) and got on their mailing list. It was through them that I found out about the most excellent softcover book "A Birder's Guide to the Texas Coast" by James A. Lane (1980) (Note: I checked and you can still get a used copy of this book at amazon.com). I have used this book extensively and found many great spots to go birding including High Island. One late April day in 1982 I set sail for the coast.

On my way to High Island that day I spotted my life lister King Rail from my car. This got me excited because you figure if you are seeing life listers in the car on the way to the place, how good is it going to be when you get there! I was right to get excited, because over the next four years High Island turned out to be one of the most spectacular birding places that I have ever been fortunate enough to be able to visit.

There were always lots of birds to be found on April days at High Island, but a few observations stand out for me. The most beautiful "routine" bird that I saw every year was the Summer Tanager. Always a pleasure to roll into the sanctuary and fight it right away - a bit of a touchstone for me. The best life lister I found in Boy Scout Woods was the Swainson's Warbler. In those days I visually identified all my life listers - I didn't have any song skills at that time. I worked really hard to find the bird low in the shrubery and persisted to get a good enough look to properly identify it. I felt triumphant upon figuring out what it was.

High Island is a place for spectacular birding, but in 1984 it outdid itself. On that occassion the weather was such that northerly headwinds left the sanctuary literally filled to the brim with tired passerines. When I walked into the sanctuary that day there was a fellow birder with a male Hooded Warbler sitting an his shoe, obviously too tired to move. We made eye contact and a rather bemused look passed between us, and then we started laughing at the site. Later that day I spotted what was to be one of my most memorable sights in all my birding days - a flock of about thirty Painted Buntings feeding on the ground. I had trouble driving home after that day because I was so excited by my day at the refuge!

I was looking at the HAS High Island Information page and the place has changed since I last went there in 1986. They now have added a visitor's kiosk and some grandstands. Unfortunately the sanctuarys also took some hits from Hurricanes Rita and Humberto. Hopefully the place will recover, I'm sure the HAS has done some great work to restore the area.

I hope to get back to High Island someday, and continue on with the transcendental birding experience that it has already provided to me.


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