Journalists explore the Texas Coast’s migratory birds

Environmental Journalists use their binoculars to view migratory birds at Smith Oaks Sanctuary near the Texas coast.
Environmental journalists use their binoculars to view migratory birds at Smith Oaks Sanctuary near the Texas coast. Photo by Barb Kuensting

HOUSTON, Texas, March 31–  It’s 8 A.M., and thousands of waterbirds gather on a U-shaped island not more than a few hundred feet wide in the middle of a pond in High Island, Texas, about 80 miles southeast of Houston. 

Three kinds of egrets – as well as roseate spoonbills, neotropic cormorants, and black-crowned night herons – crowd around on the island to nest close to one another.

Thousands of waterbirds make the 600-mile trek across the Gulf of Mexico to spend summers up north, and Houston Audubon’s Smith Oaks Sanctuary, where the pond is located, is a crucial rest stop for migratory birds this time of year.

“I don’t think people realize just how important this place is for birds,” Glenn Olsen, a birding tour guide and instructor at Rice University and Houston Audubon, said to the group of environmental journalists as they watched the spectacle early that morning. 

Attendees of the annual Society of Environmental Journalistsconference visited the sanctuary on a tour March 31 led by the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory and Houston Audubon. 

Houston and the Galveston area, Olsen explained, are essential for migratory birds because they offer a rest stop in their annual migration northward for the summer. The rookery, or nesting ground, offers a space free from mammalian predators that’s close to marshes, where they feed, he said.

Glenn Olson identifies a bird as he leads a group of environmental journalists on a birding tour.
Glenn Olson, a birding tour guide and instructor at Rice University and Houston Audubon, identifies a bird as he leads a group of environmental journalists on a tour. Photo by Barb Kuensting

The Smith Oaks Sanctuary comprises 177 acres of protected land made up of fields, woods, wetlands, and ponds. But it’s only one of four Audubon parks in the High Island area.

60-acre Boy Scout Woods, only a few minutes’ drive away, is another valuable location for migratory birds along the coast. There, Houston Audubon’s land director Pete Deichmann explained to the conference-goers the importance of native plants to the birds and the dangers of invasive species. 

Species like yaupon holly, native to Texas, are great for all types of animals, but birds especially, Deichmann explained. The berries are a great winter food source and many species use its branches for nesting. “This is what we want it to look like,” he said, gesturing toward a patch of forest dotted with yaupon holly trees.

However, invasive Chinese privet, a dense shrub that crowds out other species, is threatening the native’s territory, especially at Boy Scout Woods. Introduced to the US from China in 1852, it has quickly overtaken much of the natural southeastern landscape by producing too much shade from shrub-cover and reducing biodiversity, according to a 2014 study done by U.S. Forest Service researchers.

Privet isn’t the only harmful species found along the Texas coast. There’s also Chinese tallow and China berry, both fast-growing, ornamental trees that are considered pests in the southeastern U.S., Deichmann said. These trees cause shade problems similar to privet.

Invasive species like these not only reduce the amount of food available from native plants for migratory birds, but they also limit habitat options and nesting locations, according to a Stanford study.

In places like the High Island sanctuaries, Houston Audubon uses herbicides  like glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup, to help stop the spread of invasive species, Deichmann said.

In addition to its conservation efforts, Houston Audubon emphasizes community-based education, especially in underserved areas, said Helen Drummond, executive director of the nonprofit organization.

The Sunnyside neighborhood of Houston, for example, is one of the most crime-stricken neighborhoods in the Texas city. Houston Audubon holds birding events in the neighborhood meant as a whole-family experience once a month to get residents  outside and thinking about birds, Drummond said. “It’s about what birds mean to everyday lives,” she said. 

Martin Hagne, executive director of Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, told tour attendees how its research lives up to its mission of “protecting birds and their habitats around the Gulf of Mexico and beyond.” He said that the research conducted provides a foundational scientific basis for conservation efforts.

For example, the observatory has revealed that Swainson’s hawk plummeted in the 80’s but has since bounced back, Hagne said. On the contrary, its research on black skimmers found that conservation efforts haven’t gone far enough, Hagne said. “If we can’t do something in 15-20 years, they’ll be gone from the Texas Coast,” he said.

The Gulf Coast Bird Observatory’s primary method for tracking birds, Hagne explained, is through tagging individuals. Its Motus Tower Project can detect when tagged birds are within fifteen kilometers. This helps researchers track the important areas for migration, he said. 

One journalist asked if Hagne had seen a decrease in birds after the 2021 Texas winter freeze that led to power grid failures. “Wintering birds that were here that year did not return the next year, and we know why,” Hagne replied, adding that if birds didn’t freeze to death, they most likely starved due to lack of edible food during and after the freeze. 

Bird enthusiasts can access Houston Audubon’s High Island parks year-round from sunrise to sunset for a fee of $10 per person, excluding children, students, and High Island Residents, who can enter free.

Thousands of migratory birds flock to the rookery at Clay Bottom Pond in Houston Audubon's Smith Oaks Sanctuary.
Thousands of migratory birds flock to the rookery at Clay Bottom Pond in Houston Audubon’s Smith Oaks Sanctuary. Photo by Barb Kuensting

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