It’s amazing to me how many Houstonians don’t know about High Island. It’s right there on the Bolivar Peninsula in Galveston County, and it’s recognized world-wide as one of the premier bird-watching territories.
You don’t have to know anything about birds to enjoy High Island. In fact, you really don’t even have to have a whole lot of patience and time, as you do with most bird-watching outings. All you need is your own two eyes, and if you’re smart and really want to see something, a pair of binoculars.
During the spring, Egrets, Herons, Roseate Spoonbills, and Ibises migrate to this area to mate, build nests and roost. It’s a sight to behold, especially from Smith Oaks Sanctuary, a beautiful park owned and operated by the Audubon Society. Just navigate to the general area, then follow the wooden signs that simply say “Rookery,” and you will find yourself in a dirt parking lot surrounded by walking trails.
The one that looks like a boardwalk is your main trail. When you arrive, volunteers from the Audubon Society will greet you with information and maps. Then just stroll down the boardwalk under the canopy of trees. You’ll hear birds before you see them, and if you have good eyesight, you’ll eventually begin to spot them. But you won’t have to work hard for long.
Rounding the corner, you will see water ahead, and suddenly, a cacophony of bird sounds will fill your ears. You’ll approach the viewing deck over the water, and then you’ll gasp. Thousands of birds – big water birds, at that – are on display before you. The brightest, pinkest Spoonbills you’ve ever seen; Snowy Egrets, their feathers plumed out around them, proud peacock-like; Ibises, their distinctive coral-colored and curved beaks working feverishly to break through twigs as they gather material for their nests.
They squawk and tweet and trill, they thwap their wings in short bursts as they drop to the ground for branches, loose roots, and bark and return to their spots to add on to their nests. Already completed bird homes fill crooks in trees, babies’ heads poking up to receive nourishment from adults.
Smith Oaks’ boardwalk provides plenty of viewing decks, some double-decker so you can witness the birds from up above or straight on. It’s a photographer’s dream, and you’re so close to all the action that even a cell phone camera will capture the beauty.
The Audubon Society has several parks and stations to explore at High Island. Boy Scout Woods, just down the street, is also manned by volunteers who provide information about the birds you’ll see, how they protect themselves, and why they roost in this particular area. They will give you a handy map of all of the viewing areas you can explore, including natural areas along the beach and wooded areas where you will need to look far into the trees. One area of Boy Scout Woods looks out over two water treatment ponds mostly covered in tall grasses. It’s a bonanza of red-winged blackbirds, their shoulders ablaze as they move throughout the marsh.
Your window of opportunity to see the peak breeding and nesting of these majestic birds is short – get there as quickly as you can, as their numbers will fade as they move on towards the end of April.
It really is a great Easter weekend activity for the whole family, more proof, if you needed it, of God’s incredible artistry.
You can enter High Island one of two ways – drive straight there on Interstate 10, or take the free ferry from Galveston to Port Bolivar. If you can, do both, and see the entire loop of birds and beautiful scenery. Note: The only restaurants are a good 20 miles south of Smith Oaks, so be sure to eat before you go.
For more information about this area, visit houstonaudubon.org.