Bird-watching a beloved pastime on Texas Coast
Warblers, tanagers, orioles, buntings and thrashes.
In April, these birds and hundreds of their companions will descend upon Lafitte’s Cove about 5 miles west of the seawall’s end in Galveston.
The 32-acre wooded preserve, fronted by a large, marshy lake, offers a respite to the weary wanderers in their annual spring migration.
A well-tended path loops through the motte of deep green oaks, hardwoods and brush, which is very like the mythical Hundred Acre Wood.
It was here on a warm spring morning, with the migration of songbirds well underway, that I saw my first scarlet tanager. It was nestled in the brush, but its electric red feathers gave away its location. Moments later, this time with binoculars, I saw a pair of Baltimore orioles soaring above me in striking suits of orange and black. While both these sightings are common for a well-guided beginner, nothing about the experience is ordinary.
“Birding is a meditation, a passion and a way to connect to the natural world in a significant and satisfying way,” Ed Reynolds, a professor at Spokane Falls Community College, said.
Most years, Reynolds, his wife, Daisy, and a cadre of friends travel 2,000 miles from their home in Washington State to observe bird life in Galveston, Bolivar Peninsula and High Island during the spring migration.
The area’s coastal and freshwater habitats are recognized as some of the richest areas for birding in the United States.
A total of 235 species were recognized at last year’s FeatherFest, Galveston’s four-day birding event, to which hundreds of enthusiasts flock.
“When you begin observing birds, it’s like being bitten by an infectious process,” said Alice Anne O’Donell, a Galveston physician, who was introduced to birding by her neighbor, Martha Micks.
A day trip by bicycle fueled O’Donell’s interest.
“I saw herons and gulls, and on 8 Mile Road, I saw a killdeer feigning a crippled wing to keep us away from its nest,” O’Donell said. “I went from zero to 60 in a year’s time and I knew for a birder, Galveston is paradise.”
Crisscrossing migration patterns in the spring and fall, and the vast waterbird habitats draw the most attention, but here birding is a year-round activity. Different seasons host different species, some more rare than others.
It was a chilly, foggy day in January when Mort and Brenda Voller had their ace sighting.
They were walking in the Galveston Island State Park in the city’s West End, when in the gloomy distance, Mort saw a huge black and white bird with a long, forked tail.
To his studied eye, it looked something like the flycatchers that come up from the south in the springtime, but it was an unlikely winter visitor.
“When you see a bird that is out of place and out of time, it begs to be recognized,” he said.
Voller called naturalist Jim Stevenson, who identified the bird as a rare fork-tailed flycatcher. At that time, the bird had only been sighted 13 times in the United States.
Voller reported the event to TexBird, a website that keeps bird watchers up-to-date on statewide sightings. The following day, hundreds of people flocked to the state park to glimpse the bird.
For Brenda Dawson, who splits her time between The Woodlands and the island, favorite sightings include a reclusive black rail in the state park, and watching the dance of the reddish egret near Boddeker Road on the island’s East End.
“The egret spreads his wings to create a shadow, allowing him to see the little fish, and then he has a feast,” Dawson said.
During the spring migration, Dawson spends up to eight hours a day observing and photographing birds, such as the multicolored painted bunting and the black and orange Blackburnian warbler.
You just never know what you might see.
Fairly new to the island is the crested caracara, a tropical falcon whose range was traditionally south and west of Galveston. Now a pair are nesting in the natural areas at Moody Gardens in Galveston, said Greg Whittaker, president of the Galveston Audubon Club, and also manager of animal husbandry at Moody Gardens.
“They fledged two chicks last year that were running around in the parking lot,” Whittaker said.
The island and region has a large population of birding enthusiasts.
“There is more interest here in birds than any place I’ve ever lived,” islander Laura Burns said. She and her husband, John Koloen, took a beginning birding class from expert Dick Peake, and afterward incorporated birding in their daily life and travels.
The wide-open spaces of the Galveston Island State Park is a favorite jaunt, but the best sightings have been in their own backyard on Galveston’s East End, which is planted to attract birds and butterflies.
“The yellow-crowned night herons nest in the live oaks, and when the juveniles are not yet flying, they hop around our deck in the morning,” Koloen said.
The “babies” are about 2 feet tall, and even though they can’t fly, they have tremendous wingspans and are strong hoppers, he said.
Another backyard spotting was a peregrine falcon, which arrived on a windy day.
“He perched on the grape arbor and the other birds scattered,” Koloen said. “When he took off, you could see the power; it was like watching a jet plane rise.”
Backyard birding also is a pastime for O’Donell, who owns West End acreage that serves as a natural habitat and refuge for birds and wildlife.
“A buff-bellied hummingbird came to my house for five years in a row,” she said. “After Hurricane Ike, when everything was dead, my brother helped me plant 80 Turk’s caps. Not long after, who should appear but that buff-bellied hummingbird. It made me feel like everything was going to be all right.”
If there is any bird that O’Donell would most like to see, it’s the foot-long Eskimo curlew, with its cinnamon-colored feathers and long green legs. It was last officially spotted on Galveston’s West End in 1959. Long endangered, and now possibly extinct, this bird, with its tragic history, might just reappear on the island. If it does, O’Donell will spot it.