Mooned by a black-throated green warbler at High Island during the great migration

Isn’t it silly to go to a place 90 miles away and sit in the bleachers watching for thirsty or dirty birds to dive into the puddle under a dripping hose? Yes, but we do just this nearly every weekend, and even some weekdays, in April and early May. We’re leaving Houston, but we’re not leaving the spring migration here. We’ll be back. And for those who are wondering, we’ll be back in late October too. We expect to love St. Louis, but not leave Houston and Rice entirely behind. So look to be surprised by our presence at Wiess College lunches!

The bleachers at Boy Scout Woods are not a solitary experience. The talk among the customers also argues against the stereotype for birders being a rich, elitist bunch. On our first trip this year the bleacher discussion we listened in on when the drip was quiet involved food. In particular it involved Velveeta, and its wonders in queso dip, in macaroni and cheese, and in tuna-noodle bake. This particular group looked like they did not need any more of any of those foods, and neither do we, but it was fun.

The birds fly in off the Gulf, and rest and eat here, particularly if there is a north wind they have to fly into. Otherwise they’ll continue north into much more prolific forests. Apparently they leave theYucatan coast in the evening, cross all night and into the next morning, then plummet down for rest beginning around 2 pm. We go to see these jewels, forgetting for the moment that we are slow birders, content with a single active bird, and we become listing birders, headed towards 20 warbler species for the day, not quite reaching it. This last trip in April was a stolen Thursday, and we saw northern parula, tennessee, blue-winged, yellow, chestnut-sided, magnolia, Cape May, black-throated blue (!), blackburnian, black-throated green, yellow-throated, black and white, American redstart, ovenbird, northern waterthrush, common yellowthroat, Canada, and that is it, unless I forgot one or two.

High Island is not usually the town Houstonians converge upon for fun. It is a small, poor, oilfield worker town just back from the coast, perched on a salt dome and ringed with pumping wells. It has three churches, but no Dairy Queen. The Methodist Church serves great bar-b-que on Saturdays during April, complete with homemade cakes and pies. High Island survives the storm surges of the hurricanes that blister through, but feels the winds. Houstonians would be more likely to go on towards the Bolivar Peninsula, to towns like Crystal Beach, or Gilchrist, both obliterated by hurricane Ike, and now receiving dump-truck loads of coarse sand.

Besides the warblers, I was after a rose-breasted grosbeak this Thursday afternoon. There he sat, chest stained raspberry red, head a contrasting black, belly fluffy white. This was the bird I wanted for a photo, emblematic of a great witnessing of the spring migration, just as kettles of broad-winged hawks are to fall migration at Smith Point. But that was not enough. I also wanted a photo of this proud bird, and I did not have a lens anything like those swelling around me. A rose-breasted grosbeak sounds like an American robin on speed, not too much, just enough to make it forget to pause between measures.

A last thought from this springtime ritual actually happened as we arrived. We stopped at the pink taco stand in Winnie by the tire store for their delicious beans and tacos. We joined a woman at the solitary table, and chatted a little. She said she did fine through Ike, would never say otherwise. But her damage came to 100K, and a flattened F150 pick-up. She watched her mother’s home on the news periodically, and thought it was all right. The brick front was fine, even though the home backed on a coastal bayou. But when they got there after the storm, and opened the front door, a wall of grass and cane met them. The back of the house had disappeared, and the banging shrimp boats rammed in floating debris.

More somber was her husband’s story. He had been down on Crystal Beach closing up a sister’s home. They left a good 8 or so hours before the posted deadlines, but said the water was already over the bridge at Rollover Pass. He said there were people like ants swarming all over the buildings attempting to secure them, and he left the their image, worried that they would not get out since he only barely did. What happened to these people? Many cars were found after the storm, blown onto Anahuac Wildlife Refuge. And no one would have left their car down there. There are still hundreds of missing people, and they must have included those desperate hammerers and boarders he saw that last morning on Bolivar Peninsula. It makes me wonder where Wikipedia writers get their US mortality numbers for Ike from.

Why do people stay there? Is it for the Austin-like camraderie? The sun, the beach, the fish? Help and be helped? A friend of a friend says that’s it, and splits her time between a small Galveston Island community and one in a reserve on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. If that’s what we all want, why do we so often live so differently?


There’s my lovely male rose–breasted grosbeak, beak stained with mulberries, talking away!


Salt domes mean oil, oil fields, workmen.


We don’t know why Tropical Birding built that tower, but they give great tours!


Could this black-throated green warbler so hungrily eating inchworms, actually be mooning us?


Will this orchard oriole drop into the puddle under the drip?


We watch from the bleachers at Boy Scout Woods, and I get none of the joy of wilderness.


What they saw and you didn’t can always be figured out at Boy Scout Woods in High Island, at least in April.


The largest, longest goes to the woman! Wonder how much they’ll charge for their thousands of photos of the single, confused black-throated blue warbler?


We were right by the Smith Oaks graveyard. What unforeseen hurricanes these vanished souls must have lived through on this coastal dimple.


Roseate spoonbills, and their reflections, improbable birds for Texas!


Which of those great egret chicks will survive? Mom won’t intervene.


Sand trucked in to Crystal Beach.


The brown-watered gulf.


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
This entry was posted in Birds, Environment, hurricanes, towns and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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