How Galveston’s beloved brown pelican inspired a 5,000-mile odyssey
My spark bird was the brown pelican, the inspiration for my new passion. During the pandemic, I spent lonely days at the beach watching pelicans fly in V-formations and plunge-dive for fish.
I am astounded by the plight of the brown pelican and its inconceivable comeback from near extinction in the 1960s because of the pesticide DDT.
In April, I tracked down local birder and habitat conservationist Alice Anne O’Donell, who loaned me her binoculars and guided me for a few hours around Galveston Island hot spots. I became mildly obsessed with the island’s loudest and most colorful residents, such as the West End peacocks, great blue herons, great and snowy egrets, roseate spoonbills and Galveston’s official bird, the reddish egret.
To take my new hobby to the next level, I had to graduate from birdwatcher to competitive birder. I launched my life list and hit the open road from Galveston to Alabama’s Gulf Shores and around the coastal areas of Florida. I clocked 5,000 migratory miles on my rental vehicle, but a blackpoll warbler, might call that minimal effort. This songbird weighs less than half an ounce and can cover more than 12,500 miles in a round trip and fly three days straight over the Atlantic Ocean without stopping.
My complete migration trip began and ended in Galveston. One out of every three birds migrating through the United States in the spring flies over Texas; 2 billion birds pass through in spring alone.
Millions of neotropics were heading northwest and I was heading southeast to see friends in Florida. I planned to meet up with those warblers in the middle. We convened on Dauphin Island in Alabama, where the weather and timing were right. Dauphin has a population of 1,300 and is the first land many birds encounter as they migrate north from South America.
I recall on my first day on Dauphin Island how excited I was waking up at the crack of dawn, walking outside my motel door hoping to join a group. But they looked at my outfit and took off. Naturally, I dressed nautically. It was the coast after all. But they were dressed to kill, in head-to-toe camouflage. Researchers have found that birds can recognize visual patterns, colors, shapes and facial expressions, but if you keep quiet, walk slowly and keep your distance from their nests, what not to wear is of no concern to them.
Two seasoned Arkansas birders, Kerry and Terry, took me under their wing and we teamed up for several days. We watched, waited and recorded in the woods, along the bayou, at the beaches and in the Audubon sanctuary. Kerry kept a journal; I recorded on my iPhone and used Cornell bird apps. Terry had his old-school field guidebook.
Keeping pace with the pack was challenging. I was overjoyed, yet overwhelmed, by the number of warblers, buntings, tanagers, vireos, grosbeaks and backyard birds. The cheerful calls, vibrant colors, controlled chaos, camaraderie and clicks of the cameras — it was done in a flash. By the time you spot it, photograph and record it, the warblers have moved on.
My general rule was to follow the pro with the huge telephoto lens, because chances are the twitcher will spot it before the rest of the crowd. Twitchers are birders who seek to add as many species as possible to their life lists. They’re in it to win it.
You don’t have to migrate across the country or the world to be a bird watcher. From the East End to the West End, Galveston is home to a variety of avians, including roseate spoonbills, great blue herons, reddish egrets and great egrets, to name a few. File photos by Jennifer Reynolds, Stuart Villanueva and Kevin M. Cox
Once the migratory birds had moved on, I fast-tracked for the Emerald Coast in Florida, hoping to record a rare species, or at the very least, see birds endemic to the state.
During spring, migratory speeds of birds increase, too. As they’re returning to breeding grounds, the smaller birds travel about 60 to 80 miles a day; larger birds like hawks travel upward of 250 miles daily. Some birds can travel while half asleep, using half of their brain. Here I was totally dependent on tech maps and apps for navigation. I got turned around, lost and even drove my car into a ditch. Migrating birds simply use the stars, the sun, the Earth’s magnetic field and the weather to guide them great distances.
My goal was to visit as many wildlife refuges and coastal areas with mixed habitats as possible and connect with friends along the way.
Vultures and hawks often are soaring over forests off the highways, you just need to listen and look up. I encouraged everyone I met to try birding, even the officer who pulled me over for speeding. He looked through my binoculars at a Eurasian collared dove, but he still cited me.
A major highlight of my coastal bird tripping included extremely close encounters with nesting waders and their babies in St. Augustine and Delray Beach. There were colonies of roseate spoonbills, herons, egrets and wood storks as far as my eyes could see.
My Big Day — May 8 — was quickly approaching, and I needed to cover more ground. So, I hired a top ornithologist and his colleagues to take me on guided nature tours. We trekked for hours at the best local hotspots, hitting a handful of coastlines in three days. We spotted Florida scrub-jays, burrowing owls, nesting ospreys, monk and nanday parakeets.
Alex McLeod photographed a variety of birds on her 5,000-mile birding adventure from Galveston to Florida. Courtesy photos
My Big Day became a Big Week. My life list was becoming more varied, but the Florida heat and humidity were ever-increasing. There was a pivotal moment of exasperation for me as we waited and waited for a short-tailed hawk to appear, but it eluded us.
Did I have the patience for this sport? There are no guaranteed rare bird sightings; so much of it is weather and timing. But in those anti-climactic moments, we focused on flora and fauna.
When I reached Vero Beach, where the American conservation movement all began, it was official: I was a birder. Walking the Centennial Trail boardwalk and proudly peering through my loaned binoculars from the observation tower of Pelican Island, in the very first national wildlife refuge created in the United States, was well worth the journey.
After vacationing in Palm Beach with friends, I continued bird tripping in Naples, Ft. Myers, Sarasota and St. Petersburg. I trailed my feathered friends on foot, by car and by boat, braved the insect bites and weather. By the time I reached Cedar Key, I was exhausted but pressed on to Apalachicola.
On Mother’s Day, I landed on St. George Island and spent the day with palm warblers, red-bellied woodpeckers and eastern towhees. I had achieved my personal goal of birding on all 10 named coasts of Florida. By taking a few detours and pushing myself further, my new hobby proved to be life-changing.
You don’t have to migrate across the country or the world to be a bird watcher. Some 45 million people enjoy it every day and never leave their backyards. As for me, I am having a very big year in terms of my road travels, and my bird life list is growing steadily. In fact, right now I am off to scout a lifer bird, a red-vented bulbul, for a mentor in Florida.
Alex McLeod was born and raised in Galveston and went on to become an Emmy-nominated TV host, launching some of the most popular reality based programs, including “Trading Spaces” and “Joe Millionaire 1.”