During their spring migration, birds northbound from the Yucatan Peninsula must fly almost 600 miles across the Gulf of Mexico to reach the Texas coast. There are no islands along the way. The birds travel at 20 to 40 miles an hour, depending on the species. Many, especially the smaller ones, fly just a few feet above the waves. When they reach land, they come down to rest and feed for a day or two before moving on. For some 50 years a growing number of people from various states and foreign countries have checked into motels in Texas coastal cities to be on hand for the peak of the spring migration. They are a diverse group—young outdoor types, scientists, retired couples enjoying annual reunions, having drinks and comparing notes at the end of a long, active day. When you see six or eight people breakfasting together and a pair of binoculars beside each plate, you know they are birders.
Last year I went down to the Texas coast to see both birds and birders. I chose High Island, about 70 miles east of Houston. High Island is not an island but a hill, or mound, covering a geological formation called a salt dome. It rises smoothly, with gently sloping sides, out of the flat coastal plain and can be seen for many miles. It isn't high—47 feet—but it is large. A whole town sits on it, including a high school football field, a motel, a little brick post office. There are even vacant lots. The town, also called High Island, has a population of about 500. A mile to the south, the North American continent comes to a halt and the Gulf of Mexico begins, its waves lapping gray-brown beaches backed by modest dunes.
One day I tagged along with a group conducted by Peregrine Tours of Humble, Texas, an organization that conducts birding expeditions several continents. With them was Ben Feltner, the president of the company, and Bob Behrstock, vice-president and today's group leader. Starting from Winnie, Texas, we headed for High Island in five or six cars, stopping along the way to look at shorebirds in a rice field. There was no rice visible at this time of year, just a ragged sheet of water with clumps of mud sticking through it, and groups of wading, feeding and resting birds of many species. Long-billed dowitchers were there by the hundreds, but there were only a dozen black-necked stilts and two Wilson's phalaropes. Sometimes a whole flock would take off, circle and land again.
In some years a phenomenon called a fallout occurs. A cold front with rain stalls along the upper Texas coast. In order to avoid flying into it, the migrating birds stay on the shore, while more and more arrive from the tropics. The trees, rice fields and sand flats fill with birds. A single tree, for example, might contain 300 birds of 30 species. This is a situation that birders hope for but are likely to see only once every few years.
May 12, 1985
Approaching High Island on Highway 124 you cross the Intracoastal Waterway on a bridge that arches high in the air to give tugboats clearance. From the bridge you can see High Island as the arriving birds must see it from out in the Gulf: an elevation with trees in an otherwise featureless plain. Unless their habitat is the tidal flats or the grasslands, the birds make for the trees. This is what makes High Island a sort of international clearinghouse of birds.
We, too, made for the trees. Some of the best in High Island—a patch of woods perhaps half the size of a city block—are owned by the Houston Audubon Society. There is nothing parklike or handsome about the place. It's a tangle of trees and shrubs—holly, hackberry, magnolia, grapevines and Spanish moss—with paths cut through for birders. Feltner pointed out a nest of evil-looking fire ants, the first I had ever seen. In a clearing was the caretaker's vegetable garden.
Most of the visitors were interested in spring warblers, tiny, brightly colored birds that hunt insects in the treetops, moving in and out of view among the leaves. ("See the dead branch hanging down? Below it and just a little to the left. Oops, it flew!") But the spotting was good. In all, we saw 14 species of warblers.
Some of the people in the woods were English birders who had spent two weeks in Texas, visiting Big Bend National Park and then working their way up the coast. For one of them this represented a reunion of sorts; he and an American birder renewed an acquaintance that had begun seven years earlier in the Dry Tortugas off Key West, Fla.
On the way to another patch of High Island woods, all cars stopped and we got out for a redheaded woodpecker—not new to anyone, probably, but a lively, brilliant sight, pounding away at a tree in someone's yard. High Island is a mixture of the well kept-up and the casually rundown, here and there a weedy lot, a rusting boat hull, a house whose porch is falling off. Proximity to the sea seems to make such decrepitude picturesque and tolerable.
We ate lunch at a motel with a sign out that said WELCOME BIRD WATCHERS. A row of old drill bits embedded upright in concrete keeps careless patrons from ramming the building with their cars. Salt domes like the one under High Island are fairly common in east Texas and are often associated with oil. The High Island oilfield was brought in back in 1922. Down in the flatlands some of its wells are still producing, the huge pumps with their solemnly nodding heads going day and night.
We went a few miles down the coast to the little town of Gilchrist, on the Bolivar Peninsula, a broad sandbar that partly blocks the mouth of Galveston Bay. On one side of Gilchrist are Gulf beaches, on the other, the shallows and sand flats of the bay. The bay side is where the birds gather, by the thousands. The experienced birders brought out small telescopes and set them up in the sand on tripods. Through the scopes a single shorebird resting on a sandbar, or 50 of the same species wading in a shallow, can be examined right down to the color of the eyes.
"Does anyone need a whimbrel?" asks Behrstock, who has his telescope focused on one. Those without whimbrels on their life lists come over and take a look. Birders do not compete; they cooperate. I only wish they still called themselves bird watchers. To me, birder is a weak, feckless replacement for the older term, as food preparation is for cooking and security guard for night watchman, but birders is what they like to be called.
Fifteen miles from High Island the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge lies as flat as a rug beside Galveston Bay. It is 24,000 acres of coarse grass rooted in waterlogged soil just inches above sea level. And that's about all it is; Anahuac caters to wildlife more than to people. The roads are narrow and topped with gravel. The restrooms are adequate, but just barely. You can't buy a souvenir or a cold drink anywhere. For a month every spring the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service takes birders on rides through a 10,000-acre observation area within the refuge to look at rails—marsh birds of different sizes, many of which resemble chickens—that are far from numerous, hard to spot and nice additions to any birder's list.
You make reservations for the rail buggy, a tractor-and-wagon arrangement like those that are used for hayrides. It is equipped with wide-track flotation tires that sink only a little into the mushy mixture of soil, water and grass.
A birder walking across the refuge in rubber boots would find the going difficult and the rails hidden in thigh-high grass. Rails don't pop into the air like quail; they just walk calmly away from you, down among the grass stems where they can't be seen. But with the roar of the rail buggy's tractor coming at them, they get mildly alarmed and fly a few yards, often coming down in a spot where the grass is thin. Then the passengers, standing high in the buggy, have a chance to see them.
I was one of about 30 people, the vehicle's capacity, who climbed a six-foot ladder to get into the buggy. It ground off, mostly rolling but partly floating, carrying us high above the muck.
"Don't try to use your binoculars," we were told. "Look for birds about 30 feet out from the buggy, and then focus your glasses." After a while there were shouts: "A yellow! A yellow!" and 10 arms stuck out over the side of the rail buggy, pointing at a small, black-striped yellow bird. The excitement was like that generated by a touchdown in high school football. It was a breezy, sunny day. Galveston Bay sparkled. The rail buggy worked. For most of the passengers, the yellow rail was probably a new bird for their life lists. Who could tell—we might see Virginia rails, king rails, clappers, soras and blacks (the smallest and hardest-to-find rail) before the ride was over.
The driver swung the buggy into a tight turn, putting the yellow rail inside the circle we were making. It ran this way and that, seeming uncomfortable but not really frightened. After all, it could get up and go if it was really alarmed. For an hour this curious scene repeated itself, the roaring tractor hauling its wagonload of birders, wandering around until a particular bird was sighted, then circling it to give everyone a chance to see it.
The area was full of recent rail buggy tracks—flotation-tire ruts nearly a yard wide and filled with water; grass mashed so flat it couldn't hide a sparrow. It looks like damage done to the environment by lovers of wildlife. It isn't. The rail buggy runs for only about a month each spring, and in a few weeks all of the resilient grass is standing again in the warm, smelly mud. People who had ridden in the buggy spoke of cottonmouths wedged in the soft tire treads and carried around, writhing, for a few turns. A very large, annoyed-looking nutria trundled away from us. Altogether, two soras, five yellow rails, three Virginia rails and two blacks were sighted, though not everyone saw every bird.
Climbing down from the buggy, Sheila Rosenberg of New York City was disappointed but grimly honest. "I didn't see the black," she said. She and her husband, Lewis, had flown down, rented a car, paid motel bills, joined a tour, seen many birds. But she had been on one side of the rail buggy and the little black rail—hardly bigger than a chick—had made its brief appearance on the other side. The rush to starboard had been like that on a ferryboat when the royal yacht Britannia passes by. In the crush, Mrs. Rosenberg had failed to see the black.
In the late afternoon I returned to High Island and the Audubon Society's woods. Twelve cars, six with out-of-state license plates, were parked at a tilt on the inadequate shoulder of the road. This is the time of day when many birds arrive from their ocean flight. The trees tend to fill up. And the sunlight, coming in horizontally, reaches deeper among the leaves and illuminates more birds. When they are brilliantly colored—orchard and Baltimore orioles, scarlet and summer tanagers, indigo and painted buntings, blue grosbeaks—they stand out like Christmas tree ornaments.
Perhaps 25 people sat or stood on the western edge of a little clearing, backs to the sun, looking up at the birds. The birds remained in place, resting, grooming themselves, having their pictures taken by a man who shot from the shoulder with a long lens that resembled a bazooka. From the thicket we heard cries like, "Frank! I've got a parula!"
These veteran birders were more patient than I. They were willing to wait on and on till dusk on the chance that yet another species might fly in from the Gulf and perch in the trees. For people of this century, they were making an uncommon response to the natural world. Instead of exploiting it, they were loving it. I was hungry. I went out, past the caretaker's onions and bean vines, and left them at it.