Galveston observatory offers good birding and stunning views
The Edward and Helen Oppenheimer Bird Observatory is an open structure that looks a little like a boat sailing in the midst of tall grass. The observatory, on the corner of Stewart and Settegast roads on Galveston’s West End, serves as a gateway and public pull-off to the Artist Boat Coastal Heritage Preserve and to the island’s legendary bird-watching opportunities.
A hidden but easily accessible oasis for visitors and residents of Galveston Island, observatory gates open at dawn Monday through Saturday, providing access to early morning skies when birds are just beginning to move around for the day. A vista across prairie and shallow water stretches about 100 acres to the north and east.
The parking lot gate off Stewart Road remains open until dusk, the other ideal time of day to enjoy the riches of the coastal prairie habitat and the bird observatory.
A boardwalk leads from the parking lot to the observation deck — a wooden, two-walled, raised rectangle with a roof and panels on the north side open at various levels. The deck allows visitors a chance to disappear and blend into the surroundings to avoid disturbing avian and other wildlife.
“My advice is to bring a folding chair and just settle in and relax, said Mary Warwick, habitat and stewardship program manager of Artist Boat, Galveston Island’s nonprofit educational organization dedicated to protecting the waters surrounding Galveston and preserving the remaining coastal prairie on the island. “View wildlife as it comes.”
On a recent July morning, Warwick and a small group went early to the observatory.
“We saw common gallinule, we saw pied-billed grebes with black and gray markings and we saw forster’s terns,” Warwick said.
Bird populations at the observatory change with the seasons — more ducks in winter, including black-bellied whistling ducks, and in spring and early summer, migratory songbirds, Warwick said. Island waterfowl are in evidence all year.
The observatory is accessible to people with disabilities and features a marked parking space and a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk from the parking lot to the viewing structure.
Inexperienced birders are welcome to use the observatory and are advised to invest in a pair of binoculars to see the faces and feet of birds.
“Download a birding app,” Warwick said. “There are plenty out there.”
The iNaturalist app, which Warwick recommends, lets a viewer snap a picture on a smartphone, then identifies the bird.
Birders should bring plenty of water and bug spray.
The observatory is the newest feature and the first public pull-off on the Artist Boat Coastal Heritage Preserve, a more than 600-acre area of coastal prairie on Galveston’s West End. The observation deck was designed and built by students from the Gulf Coast DesignLab at the University of Texas at Austin after multiple visits to the site, research and consultation on the ecology of Galveston. The observatory was dedicated in late April and funded in large part by The Edward and Helen Oppenheimer Foundation.
To learn more, visit www.artistboat.org.