High Island is a small town of about 450 people on the Upper Texas Coast between Galveston and the Louisiana border. It is a popular area to enjoy huge numbers of migrating birds that pass through on their way north to their breeding grounds. Thank goodness for the Houston Audubon Society (HAS), Texas Ornithological Society and U. S. Fish & Wildlife for purchasing and protecting this incredibly diverse and critical habitat.
High Island's Unique Geology
High Island is the surface expression of a salt dome at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. A thick layer of ancient salt exists throughout southeast Texas about 30,000 feet below the surface. At some locations, like High Island, a column of salt was squeezed upward toward the surface. This forms a “dome,” which is basically a salt cylinder some six miles tall and about a mile in diameter. As the salt dome rose, it brought massive amounts of salt and smaller amounts of other minerals close to the surface of the earth, where they sometimes mixed with ground water. The movement of the salt shattered and tipped overlying rock layers, and oil and gas in the rocks then traveled along the cracks in the rocks and “pooled” around the edges of the dome.
Oil exploration began on High Island in 1901, soon after the Spindletop discovery on a similar salt structure in the Beaumont area. Commercial oil production began in 1922. Exploration and production continue today and oil, natural gas and sulfur have all been extracted from sediments in the dome. Most production has been found along the west, north and east sides of the “Island.”
Today High Island rises 32 feet above the surrounding marshes, providing soil conditions favorable to trees and shrubs. It forms a unique and important island of habitat for migrating birds.
Many species of birds, called neotropical migrants, nest in North America and spend the winter in Latin America. Twice each year, these birds migrate the long distances between wintering grounds and spring nesting locations.
Each spring millions of birds that wintered in Central and South America are driven north by the urge to establish breeding territories and select mates. They first push north to the Yucatan Peninsula and the adjacent Mexican coast. Beginning in early March, migrants reach the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. If weather conditions are favorable migrants leave Mexico just after sunset and head north across the Gulf of Mexico.
The trip across the Gulf is 600 miles and with good weather takes about 18 hours. Arriving on the Texas coast midday, some of these birds stop on the coast; but most of the migrating birds will fly inland until nightfall.
Spring migration is an especially fun time to see the birds traveling north to their breeding grounds for a few reasons. 1. They are in full breeding plumage and the males tend to be very colorful. 2. Many of the birds' typically feed high in the tree tops and are very difficult to get good looks at; during migration, since they are tired and hungry from their travels, they feed anywhere they can find food. This often results in amazing looks at these hungry birds.
We spent an amazing 2 weeks during peak spring migration in the High Island area. We actually camped at a park on the Bolivar Peninsula which was half way in between High Island and Bolivar Flats Bird Sanctuary. We divided our time between High Island, Bolivar Flats and Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. The abundance of wildlife was stunning and we felt that in order to it justice we would split the blog into 3 parts. Part 1 covers the wildlife seen at Smith Oaks and Boy Scout Camp of High Island proper. Part 2 covers the Rookery located on High Island. Part 3 covers Boliver Flats Bird Sanctuary & Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.
Part 1: High Island- Smith Oaks and Boy Scout Camp
Smith Oaks is 143 acres of field, woods, wetlands and ponds. Thirty-three acres were purchased by Houston Audubon Society (HAS) with the help of HAS members, friends, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The remaining 110 acres were donated to the HAS by Amoco Production Company.
Smith Oaks was named for George and Charlotte Smith, who acquired the property in 1879 from Charlotte's parents, John and Mary Ann Brown. Records show that the couple began improvements on the land that year, building houses, fences and ditches, and planting oak trees and hedges.
George Smith owned cattle and raised peaches, pears, oranges, strawberries, cabbage, sugar cane, cotton and tobacco. He also operated a sugar mill and cotton gin on the property. However, he was most famous for his mineral water enterprise.
Smith dug several water wells on his property and reported that he had 21 "distinct" waters. The deepest well, dug in 1882, was 32 feet and also produced gas, which Smith viewed as an inconvenience, as there was no market for it.
Smith received a trademark and bottled and sold his "High Island Mineral Springs Water" along the Texas Gulf Coast. He claimed that the water would cure "anything ailing you". The Smith's home, dismantled in 1985, stood on the property for over 100 years. The site of their house is still easily identified, as the garden paths, flower beds and ornamental plants are still evident.
Here are a few photos of some of the migrating birds we were fortunate to see while visiting High Island:
Male Bay-breasted Warbler- these warblers of the northern spruce forests depend on spruce budworm outbreaks. Their population numbers directly correspond to infestations.
Black-throated Green Warbler- this little guy wanted to take a bath
Male Blackburnian Warbler
Male Blackpoll Warbler- his pink legs help birders to identify him when looking up from below
Male Cerulean Warbler....this was our first time seeing this bird and it gave us quite a show:) It typically feeds on the tops of the trees so we were very fortunate to have such close looks. We think it was coming down to bathe at a nearby water feature.
Golden-winged Warblers: the first photos are of the female Golden-winged Warbler. This was another new bird for us. We were seeing the male but I was having a very hard time getting a photo. This female was very cooperative.
I finally got a few photo opportunities to photograph the male Golden-winged Warbler.
Male Hooded Warbler- this is a relative of our more familiar Wilson's Warbler of the west
Female Kentucky Warbler- these shy warblers tend to spend their lives on the ground and as a result are difficult to see
Male Kentucky Warbler
Male Nashville Warbler
Male Tennessee Warbler
Ovenbirds prefer to forage for grubs in the leaf litter on the ground.
Baltimore Orioles love fruit, as you can tell by this male below feasting on berries. Many people attract orioles into their yard by putting out 1/2 oranges and/or cups of jelly:)
The birds in the next 3 photos are all male Indigo Buntings in various plumages. Many of the male birds do not come into their full adult colors until the 2nd or 3rd spring. This can make identification of many birds even more challenging than it already is:)
Male Blue Grosbeak
Female Scarlet Tanager
Male Summer Tanager
Gray-cheeked Thrushes have the most northern breeding range of all of the American spotted thrushes. As a result it is not as well known.
Gray Catbirds are skulkers of the dense thickets. This is another bird more often heard than seen. Some of its calls actually sound like the "mew" of a cat.
The World is Full of Beauty & Wonder,
Turtle & Hawk