Texas Where They Do Everything Super Size Including Hurricanes And Bird Migration

Black-throated Blue Warbler just the sort of bird birders are looking for in Texas.

An extract from the original manuscript of our book "The Biggest Twitch" featuring our birding adventures in the "the lone star state" Texas....

Say the name ‘Texas’ to Alan or me, and the first thing that comes into our minds will be wind. Not from eating too many refried beans, a Texan speciality, but the big, terrifying, life-threatening, destructive hurricane kind of wind.

My first introduction to the Texas coast had been dramatic to say the least. Back in the autumn of 2006, Alan and I had been invited to join Iain Campbell and his colleagues at Tropical Birding at High Island on the Texas coast not far from Houston. On the worldwide leader-board of destinations to witness spring bird migration, this has got to be at or near the top. So, although September wasn’t the right time of year for the migration of warblers and other passerines heading north, it wasn’t an offer we were about to refuse.

Grey Catbird can be found in the scrub and garden around High Island.

Why is this area so special? Well, migrating birds head north from their wintering grounds in South and Central America up to their breeding grounds in North America, following the irresistible urge to find a partner and mate to raise a brood or two, maybe in exactly the same location as last year, and maybe where they grew up themselves. Birds following the eastern sea-board face a stark choice when they reach the Gulf of Mexico. Do they go straight across the water or go round the edge? Those who circuit the edge of the Gulf of Mexico have the advantage that they are always flying over land, so they can stop to rest and feed whenever they necessary. However, they face a much longer journey to reach their destination. Those, like most of the warblers, who choose to fly straight across the Gulf may take the shorter option, but perhaps the perils are greater. The broad expanse of water is unbroken by any islands in the middle so there’s no chance of a handy resting point if they are tired or hit a headwind. Once the birds have stocked up on as much food as they can possibly take on board on the southern shore of the Gulf of Mexico, they launch themselves northwards and fly as fast as they can across the ocean aiming for the Texas coast and the next available patch of dry land. This is likely to be High Island.

The name ‘High Island’ may seem a bit of a misnomer. After all, it is only a few feet higher than the surrounding landscape of flat, grassy fields and marshland sprinkled with nodding donkeys drilling for oil. In fact, the name comes from the large salt dome hidden under the ground which raises this small patch of land higher than anywhere else on the Gulf coast. This highland is quite well covered in vegetation too, with several tracts of dense woodland, freshwater pools lined with reeds and rushes, and even the trees and shrubs in people’s gardens adding to the variety of habitat.

Now, imagine you are a male Blackburnian Warbler. You look stunning: your body is covered in a mish-mash of black and white patches and your face and throat are a striking flame orange. But having good looks isn’t going to help you much; what you need is plenty of luck and a following wind. Ahead of you lies the huge expanse of open water that is the Gulf of Mexico. Its width varies from 500 miles to only (only!) 175 miles at its narrowest point between the Yucatan Peninsula and the South Texas coast, but when you are only five inches long yourself, that’s an awful lot of open sea to cover. You will battle your way across this without stopping, and you’ll be getting perilously close to the last of your energy reserves by this stage. It’s touch and go whether you’ll make it to dry land. Then you’ll see the bushes and trees of High Island. Salvation! Making a last ditch effort to reach them, you’ll collapse into the nearest patch of greenery to rest and recover. You may be the focus of hundreds of pairs of binoculars but you probably won’t even notice. Your only concern is to rest and feed to regain enough energy to carry on northwards as soon as possible. That urge to find a girl and settle down is pretty strong. And if you come face-to-face with a cold weather front bringing head-on winds and driving rain, you may just find yourself literally knocked out of the sky. A ‘fall out’, as this spectacle is known, can bring hundreds of birds tumbling out of the clouds, not raining metaphorical cats and dogs but raining actual birds instead.

And that is why, for a few key weeks in April and May each year, the urgent northward migration of birds is matched by an equally urgent migration of keen birders in their thousands from all over the world to High Island to witness this incredible phenomenon.

However, spring migration wasn’t really the main issue when we visited the area in September 2006. Tropical Birding had just bought a property directly opposite one of the best birding spots on High Island, the Houston Audubon reserve called Boy Scout Woods. TB was busily setting up the single-story wooden cottage as an information centre for birders. This would be THE happening place for birders on High Island in the coming spring, where they could catch up on the latest news of bird sightings, ask TB’s experts for identification advice and join free guided walks through the nature reserves. Initially we were all-hands-on-deck to decorate the building and work in the garden but, as temperatures were up in the hundreds and neither Alan nor I are particularly gifted in the DIY department, we soon found an excuse to drift off to go birding.

Magnificent Frigatebirds - if you see them flying inland be warned!

Perhaps we should have recognised the unusual sight of Frigatebirds flying miles inland as a sign? Maybe we should have considered the significance of the stupendous blood-red sunset that we photographed so avidly in the late afternoon? The clues were there but we didn’t read them, so we were caught completely unprepared when Hurricane Humberto hit High Island that night. But maybe we shouldn’t blame ourselves, as even the meteorologists had never seen a hurricane materialise so fast out of thin air.

We’d gone with Iain and the gang to the nearby town of Beaumont for a farewell supper before Alan and I returned to the UK the next day, and heading back to High Island we had to battle our way through driving rain and gusting wind. We said goodbye to the others and returned to our wooden chalet next door, listening to the wind howling around the corner and rattling the roof. About ten minutes later, as we were preparing for bed, Iain hammered on our door.

“I’ve just seen the news. There’s a hurricane coming through here. If you want to leave the country at all, you’ve got to go right now!!”

Iain dashed back through the rain to the TB chalet and Alan and I looked at each other in bewilderment. What to do? Making a midnight flit all sounded rather dramatic. Surely it couldn’t be that bad? Our flight wasn’t until the afternoon the next day. Where would we go? Being British, we did what any Brit would do in a crisis. We made a cup of tea. In the time it took us to do this, the wind had increased in tempo. The building was now creaking and groaning, and shuddering as each gust hit it, while the electricity wires sang a high-pitched lament. The rain spattered against the window like gravel. Perhaps there was something in this news of a hurricane after all.

With a nod, we decided to make a break for it. We threw our clothes into bags willy-nilly and piled all our belongings by the front door ready to load up the car. We washed up our dishes and tried to tidy up – sorry, Winnie, that we didn’t leave your lovely cottage in the spotless state we found it, but we hope you understand in the circumstances! We picked up the first of our bags and braced ourselves. We threw open the front door and stepped out into a cold power shower. It was like walking straight into the flow from a fireman’s hose, as the rain hit us almost horizontally. We bent into the wind and water and fought our way to the car just outside. With every step the wind pushed us backwards and we squinted our eyes tightly to see against the driving rain. The ground was sodden and we squelched our way down the grassy path between the quaking shrubs in the front garden. The 60 foot trees in Boy Scout Woods just across the road were whipping from side to side like mere saplings, and all around us swirled the wind. It groaned and roared through the trees, it whined through the wires and it snatched greedily at the bags in our hands. We threw the first load of luggage into the car. “Stay in the car!” shouted Alan as he went back for more bags. I dragged open the front door and slipped inside. For a second I was cocooned in the safety of the car but then I was aware of a strange sensation as the back of the car started lifting up in the air. It felt like the wind was threatening to flip the car over onto its roof. Suddenly, it didn’t seem a very safe place to stay, so I fought my way back outside again. I’d sooner take my chances in the open. In the meantime, Alan had dragged himself back to the cottage and was returning with the last of the luggage. I helped him load it into the boot, and we both climbed in the car. Luckily the engine started at the first turn of the key, and we drove cautiously along the road, fog- and headlights on full beam and windscreen wipers whipping across at top speed. Not that they made much difference, we could barely see more than a few feet in front of us through the curtain of rain, and the car rocked ominously from side to side. Linking High Island to the ‘mainland’ was an impressive bridge, a smooth concrete arch which rose high over the shipping channel and then descended steeply to the flat land on the other side. The bridge was wide and exposed and going over it in good weather conditions was exhilarating as it gave you a panoramic view of the scene for miles in either direction. In hurricane conditions, however, it was terrifying, and it was touch-and-go whether we could drive over its height without the wind ripping us off and tossing us over the edge. Alan drove slowly up the middle of the highway (there was unlikely to be any oncoming traffic and this kept us as far away from the edge as possible) as we inched our way up and over the bridge. We didn’t realise we were holding our breath in the tension of the moment until we were safely down the other side and our hearts started beating again. It was 11.20pm. At 11.30pm, the full force of Hurricane Humberto hit High Island. We had escaped with just ten minutes to spare.

We may have left Boy Scouts behind but we weren’t out of the woods yet. The wind blew the car across the road in gusts and we still had to drive very cautiously. Visibility was only a few feet and although the roads were empty of traffic, there were still plenty of obstacles to avoid. Lightweight garden ornaments and trees barrelled along the road at top speed, and at some intersections, the wind had brought down the power lines. Traffic lights, usually suspended up high over the crossroads, were now hanging down low enough to drive straight into, while broken cables sparked and flashed in the rain as they earthed themselves on the wet roads. But as we drove north, so the wind gradually eased and the rain backed off a little so that the wipers began to have an impact. By the time we’d reached Houston airport a couple of hours later and found ourselves somewhere to stay for what was left of the night, there was barely any wind or rain at all. The next day at the airport, we watched the news on the TV while waiting for our delayed plane, and saw images of the hurricane damage to buildings in the very same road we’d been staying in. The roof of the Post Office we’d been standing in only hours before had lifted off completely; the petrol station where we’d filled up with fuel was battered and the motel next door completely demolished; a wooden cottage just two blocks down from us had disintegrated in the blast, flattening the elderly man who lived there; cars were overturned and lying on their roofs; normal trees were upended like baobabs. Clearly we’d not got out of the way of Hurricane Humberto a moment too soon.

The birding around High Island in April is just superb anything pop ups - Common Yellowthroat.

So visiting High Island again in April 2008, we were very interested to see what we would find. What had happened to the community on the Island? Were there any trees left in Boy Scout Woods? At first glance, things looked much the same. The cheerful Houston Audubon volunteers still greeted us near the entrance. The grandstand in front of the water drip were still full of birders waiting for a first sight of the birds coming in to drink. Birds were passing through in good numbers and all seemed right with the world. But then we continued along the boardwalk to the area known as ‘Cathedral’ and we realised how different things were after the hurricane. Gone were the tall trees that had arched over the crossroads in the footpaths and had created a cool and shady green-filtered nave under the dome of vibrant foliage. Instead, the paths were baking in the exposed sunlight, and on either side of the scorched boardwalk was a tangle of smashed tree trunks, broken branches and low stunted bushes. Honeysuckle had taken advantage of this unprecedented sunlight and had crept along the twisted branches, covering the tortured wreck of woodland with a mat of white and yellow hanging flowers. The cloying scent hung in the air and filled our nostrils. The lower vegetation levels didn’t seem to bother the birds though, and in fact brought the canopy down to head level, a bonus for the birder more used to getting ‘warbler neck’ from prolonged periods of gazing upwards in search of birds.

Female Summer Tanager - the only UK record comes from North Wales, Bardsey Island.

For a British birder, the warblers on show here are mouth-watering. Forget your sylvias, acrocephali, ‘hippos’ and ‘phylloscs’, all European warbler families in muted tones of brown, green, olive, lemon and grey. These American warblers have style, and they come in colours that just zing out of the tree and hit you between the eyes. Zap! That little striped beauty with a vivid yellow face and belly wearing a black ‘necklace’ is a Magnolia Warbler. Pow! Up pops a Yellow Warbler, bright Schweppes yellow all over, with red belly lines on the male. Bam! That fiery orange-red throat and face showed that at least one Blackburnian had arrived. Even the more subdued Black-and-white Warbler is a real badger of a bird, nothing subtle about these warblers. More colour infusions came tumbling in to assault our senses: Parula Warbler, Summer and Scarlet Tanagers, Vireos in Red-eyed, White-eyed and Blue-headed versions, Worm-eating Warbler sadly without a worm, Cerulean Warbler, and Prothonotary Warbler – we went into warbler overload. At our feet a Brown Thrasher thrashed, and a Wood Thrush did whatever thrushes do. This was birding heaven and still there was more to come.

A stunning male Black-throated Green Warbler, American warblers are just so pretty.

First we borrowed Tamie Bulow, of the American Birding Association. We’d originally met Tamie when we guided the ABA Convention in Ecuador in 2006. Between them, Tamie and Brenda had organised the convention from ABA HQ in Colorado Springs, and then on the ground in Quito had shepherded and directed the hundreds of American birders onto the right tour bus at the right time with the right packed lunch, morning after morning after morning, and on their happy return in the evening, seamlessly shepherded them into the right dining room to the right table for the right meal. Tamie is a lady with impressive organisational skills, and throughout whole conference, no matter what we and the other birders threw at her, she kept her sense of humour and infectious laugh. She’s a fabulous friend, and we were delighted to see her again at High Island in 2008. She brought us immediate luck at Boy Scout Woods where her arrival triggered our sighting of the previously elusive Scarlet Tanager, so we decided to borrow her for the afternoon to see how she could boost our afternoon’s birding. Must admit, we also had designs on her Hummer, not often we get the chance to ride in one of them!

If your eyes need a rest from all the colour take in a Black and White Warbler.

For a change of scene, we drove down from the dizzy altitude of High Island to the lowlands of Bolivar Flats, a spit of sand extending out into the sea opposite Galviston. Bolivar is to waders what High Island is to warblers. The waders here are numerous, varied and, best of all, so confiding that we could get much closer to them for a really good look then they would ever allow us in the UK. All the regulars were lined up on parade for our inspection: Caspian and Royal Terns trying to out-do each other in the red/orange bill stakes; both Brown and White Pelicans hoovering up water and fish in their expandable bill pouches; Sanderling and Dunlin pottering along the strandline just as they do at home; Semi-Palmated and Western Sandpipers testing our ID skills with their similar plumages; Red Knot not really living up to their name as they weren’t in their red breeding plumage; White-winged, Black and Surf Scoter all bobbing on the water just offshore, and last and also Least, Terns dive-bombing the waves. It was an entertaining spectacle: there’s always something going on with such active birds on display and it was easy to forget the fierce sun beating down on us in this exposed spot as the stiff breeze kept us pleasantly cool. It was only back in the car that we realised that our hair was standing up on end rigid with salt (well, those of us with hair, that is!) and our noses were red from the sun. On to Yacht Basin Road and we scanned the inland sea on the landward side of this narrow coastal strip. Black Terns were busy fishing here, and a gang of Black Skimmers circled over the water slightly further out. I looked avidly to see if any of them would start skimming (think of a plane collecting water to drop on a forest fire and you get the idea) but sadly they all kept well above the water’s surface. One key bird was missing from our list: Long-billed Curlew. This bird makes our Eurasian Curlew seem positively stunted in the bill department, and it’s not a hard bird to identify. In a suitable field of long wet grassland, a series of brown heads kept popping up briefly before dipping out of sight again amongst the greenery. These tantalisingly brief views showed longish bills and pale eyestripes but the birds remained stubbornly all Whimbrels or Willets, nice birds but not our target. Then our luck changed and something unseen to us spooked the birds. They all rose up out of the grass (how could so many birds conceal themselves in such a small area?), circled and then landed in a different arrangement. One bill looked almost twice as long as the others but frustratingly dipped down into the grass again for a moment. Then it popped up again like a four-penny rabbit and surveyed the scene. There was no mistaking that bill, about a third as long again as a Whimbrel’s, and we happily added Long-billed Curlew to our list.

American Purple Gallinule amongst a mind-blowing selection of birds at Anhuac National Wildlife Refuge.

Our third must-see destination in the area was the fabulous reserve at the Anhuac National Wildlife Refuge, a protected area with a mixture of open water, reed swamp, wet grassland and the occasional clump of scrub. It’s home to a myriad of birds as well as numerous lengthy alligators, lurking like discarded tyre treads in the watery ditches beside the track. You can get out and walk the viewing boardwalks, but in most places it’s safer to stay in your car! Our visit to Anhuac necessitated another pre-dawn start but we had a hot date with our great friend Michael Retter, so we didn’t mind. We’d last birded with Michael on our madcap tour of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico back in January and now he was guiding in Texas for the migration season. It was great to see him again and swap news of what we’d all been up to in the meantime.

Our date was the only hot thing about the morning though. The pre-dawn air was bitterly cold at exposed Anhuac as we strained our frost-nipped ears to listen for Yellow and Black Rails calling. Unfortunately, the rails had more sense than us and stayed firmly hunkered down in the reeds out of the cold and refused to call. Undeterred, we carried on and as the sun came up, so did the birds. Seaside Sparrow chirped on top of a rounded bush. American Bittern got his bearings wrong and crash-landed onto the open track in front of our vehicle and stood there looking rather confused for several moments, before he recovered his cool and strutted off into the reeds. Fulvous Whistling Ducks and White-faced Ibis left their overnight roosts and flew off across the open skies to find a fresh site to feed. Stilt Sandpipers and Pectoral Sandpipers wandered through the shallows while Long-billed Dowitchers probed the deeper water. Not one but two otters startled us as they suddenly emerged from the shadows of an overhung ditch beside the track and lolloped across the road, one after the other in a game of tag – what a lovely moment to see these two handsome chocolate-brown animals in their prime.

Texas certainly has been very memorable on our visits!

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