Marshy Anahuac Wildlife Refuge as far as the eye can see

We stood motionless as thousands of long-billed dowitchers flew over us. Some were so close we could hear their soft wingbeats, and we crouched. How do we know it was thousands and not hundreds? They were in flocks of fewer 20 to 40, and there were many of these flocks moving over towards the coast, or the inland waterways. The ducks, northern shovelers, blue-winged teal and green-winged teal also sped past, somewhat higher and straighter. Was it an eagle? Was it a peregrine? What was causing everyone to flee? Should we also run?

Dave spotted the peregrine falcon first, far to the north across the misty marsh. Our birds wouldn’t be coming back any time soon, but we continued to walk out along the low levee between these shallow, watery worlds only a few miles from the Gulf. There were still plenty of shorebirds to puzzle out. We were not nearly as good alone as Cin-Ty the Sunday after. He scanned the birds with his telescope, making no mention of many of the common ones, but focusing on the American golden plover, or the Baird’s sandpiper, far in the marshy grasses. The solitary snow goose we saw last week was gone. It could fly then, but I’m guessing it was wounded or sick, because it was without its protective group, and very late for a snow goose.

From Houston, drive an hour and a half in any direction, and you are in fascinating terrain, completely different from the other directions. This is captured in the various kinds of maps of the environment from soil to vegetation. The only problem is where to hike when you get there, and that 30 mile donut of strip malls, car lots, bill boards, and cheap restaurants and motels between the lovely center and nature. If you drive east on I-10, you fight the huge trucks crossing the country, pass refineries, but that is how you get to Anahuac Wildlife Refuge. East on I-10 to exit 812, Anahuac/Hankamer, and then go south until you hit 1985 and go farther east. The waters came up past this road with hurricane Ike, it is worth remembering.

If you go in April, try to get to the headquarters at either 7 am or 4:30 pm and go on the yellow rail walk with David Sarkozi. This is one of the more surreal things birders do. These little yellow rails are hard to see because they hunker down in the sedges and don’t show themselves, but those counting the birds they’ve seen, making life lists, want this bird, and Anahuac is the place to get it. Sarkozi obliges, with milk jugs, a 50 foot line, and even rubber boots to borrow. You have to move fast to flush the rails for they can just run in front of us, unseen. But moving fast is hard for the sedges are in huge hillocks, and some of those have even huger fire ant nests. Inbetween the hillocks is water of varying depths, and sometimes deep holes. And you shouldn’t look at your feet, because you’ll miss the rail.

We didn’t see any that last Sunday in March, but we had seen them before. There were only a dozen of us, but David says towards the end of April the group can number a hundred. Now that would be something to see, a hundred birders of all ages, mostly older, cradling thousand dollar cameras and binoculars as they stumble through the dawn marsh following the milk jugs.

We decided our undergraduates would not need to do this, and concentrated on the birds out in the open. One of them spotted flashes of white towards the coast, and Cin-Ty realized it was thousands of avocets flushing up, whirling around, then settling back down. Apparently they were along the intra-coastal waterway. Wouldn’t it be fun to be an avocet, and have an elegant upcurved bill, migrate in huge flocks to Mexico and points south for the winter, then north to mostly western US for breeding? We were not avocets, however, and moved on, leaving lovely Anahuac wildlife refuge.


They say Hurricane Ike plonked sea water down here, and the geese worked it over, leaving great open water for black-necked stilts and other shorebirds.


Northern shovelers, blue-winged and green-winged teal and others fled the peregrine falcon.


A willet, classic bird of the back waters.


Stomping the sedges for yellow rails with David Sarkozi


These milk jugs rattle their stones as they are dragged.


Coots like deeper water.


Red-winged blackbird male setting up his territory, epaulets ablaze.


The debris washed over from the Bolivar peninsula to Anahuac is mostly gone.


Cattle may help keep the fields open, but the minute they are introduced, there is an interest group that no longer has only the wildlife in mind.


Great egrets migrating north.


One of the first migrating eastern kingbirds.


This lovely boat-tailed grackle male is here to stay!


Wonder why this new visitor’s center is unfinished? Apparently the footings in this wet soil were inadequate, another failed job. Greedy contractor? Incompetent contractor? Poor design? I don’t know, but it’s this same species that is building nuclear power plants, with far more harm when they fail. At least this one was caught before it was finished. Now, who knows if or when it will be fixed or who will pay?

Here is the list Cin-Ty Lee posted to ebird for our second trip, just last Sunday, the first Sunday in April. He also gives the numbers.

Location:     Anahuac NWR (UTC 049)

Observation date:     4/3/11

Notes:     these were in the intracoastal canal and could be seen flying FROM Anahuac NWR. Not sure if they were in the refuge boundaries though.

Number of species:     67

Gadwall     100

American Wigeon     20

Mottled Duck     30

Blue-winged Teal     300

Northern Shoveler     400

Green-winged Teal     400

Pied-billed Grebe     5

Neotropic Cormorant     30

Least Bittern     1

Great Blue Heron     5

Great Egret     30

Snowy Egret     25

Little Blue Heron     1

Green Heron     1

White-faced Ibis     20

Roseate Spoonbill     1

Black Vulture     10

Turkey Vulture     50

Northern Harrier     4

Swainson’s Hawk     1

Red-tailed Hawk     5

American Kestrel     1

Clapper Rail     1

Sora     1

Common Moorhen     10

American Coot     50

Black-bellied Plover     5

American Golden-Plover     30

Killdeer     30

Black-necked Stilt     80

American Avocet     5000 these were in the intracoastal canal and could be seen flying FROM Anahuac NWR.  Not sure if they were in the refuge boundaries though.

Greater Yellowlegs     40

Willet     10

Lesser Yellowlegs     50

Least Sandpiper     100

Baird’s Sandpiper     2

Pectoral Sandpiper     40

Dunlin     2

Long-billed Dowitcher     400

Wilson’s Snipe     15

Laughing Gull     20

Herring Gull     1

Gull-billed Tern     2

Forster’s Tern     8

Mourning Dove     40

Eastern Kingbird     5

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher     2

Loggerhead Shrike     2

Purple Martin     40

Tree Swallow     150

Barn Swallow     30

Cliff Swallow     5

House Wren     1

Marsh Wren     10

Northern Mockingbird     15

European Starling     50

Savannah Sparrow     40

Seaside Sparrow     2

Song Sparrow     1

Swamp Sparrow     5

White-crowned Sparrow     10

Northern Cardinal     10

Red-winged Blackbird     100

Eastern Meadowlark     20

Boat-tailed Grackle     100

Brown-headed Cowbird     35

House Sparrow     20


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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