Farewell, High Island: Hurricane Ike Slams a Birding Mecca

By Sam Crowe
September 19, 2008

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UPDATE Feb. 16, 2009: Winnie Burkett of Houston Audubon Society has a welcome update on TexBirds, citing multitudes of shorebirds at Bolivar Flats. We’re glad to hear the good news. (Thanks to Kyle for the tweet.)

Last Saturday morning, Hurricane Ike barreled into Galveston, Texas, on 110-mph winds, an 11-foot storm surge, and a storm front more than 500 miles across. Here at Round Robin, we’d like to extend our sympathies and warm wishes to the more than 100,000 people displaced and 3 million left without power in Ike’s wake. We hope their lives return to some sort of normalcy soon.

The barrier islands around Galveston are some of the nation’s most fabled birding spots. High Island and nearby areas are the first dry land many spring migrants see after a night spent flying across the Gulf of Mexico – and for many fall migrants, it holds the last berry bushes in the U.S. Many a birder has spent a dazzling 30-warbler-species day at hotspots that are now inaccessible – and that may be unrecognizable once the waters recede.

All About Birds editor Sam Crowe is a 30-year veteran of the Texas birding circuit. He offers this description, culled from local reports and birding-listserv chatter, of the damage to several iconic birding spots, as well as an update on how disrupted migrants are faring at area feeders.–Hugh Powell

Safe in my Dallas home, some 300 miles from the Texas coast, I remain in awe of the power of Hurricane Ike. Mixed in with the sadness for those that lost their homes and businesses, is an almost selfish sense of loss from the damage done to some of my favorite birding locations.  I have birded up and down the upper Texas coast for over 30 years. Favorite restaurants, service stations, and the tree in which I saw my first Scarlet Tanager are now gone, destroyed by Hurricane Ike in a few short hours.

Since so many birders have visited the area in the past, and may have had plans for birding the upper Texas coast this fall, here is a short update.

The bottom line: Do not come. Much of the upper Texas coast is closed. The property damage to much of upper Texas and parts of Louisiana is almost unbelievable.  Many lives were saved by early evacuations, but much has been lost. Here’s how some of Galveston’s best birding spots fared:

Texas City Dike

Many birders have enjoyed spending time on the five-mile long Texas City Dike. Reports indicate the dike was completely washed away in the 11-foot storm surge. This dike had survived storms for 70 years. And it was no small structure.  A heavily used roadway was wide enough for two cars and extended the full length of the dike.  Some sections were wide enough for camping.

I remember one confused Burrowing Owl that showed up years ago to hide among the granite boulders that lined the dike.

Galveston Island

Galveston Island, with a population of almost 60,000, is closed to all but relief workers until further notice.  At this point even homeowners are not being allowed to return.

An early survey of Galveston Island indicated that almost all structures on the entire west end of the Island, west of 11 Mile Road, were destroyed, and that few structures on Galveston’s western one-third had survived. The area of near-total destruction includes the communities of Bay Vista, Lake Como and Jamaica Beach, as well as the Galveston Country Club and the Galveston Island State Park. This includes about 1,000 structures, including single-family homes, hotels, resorts and commercial properties.

11 Mile Road will be familiar to many birders. I first visited the area many years ago during an American Birding Association convention.  A little further west of 11 Mile Road is the field where T. Ben Feltner saw perhaps the last confirmed Eskimo Curlew.

Bolivar Peninsula before-and-after. Images courtesy U.S. Geological Survey.

Bolivar Peninsula

Bolivar Peninsula, the almost 30-mile finger of land from the Port Bolivar ferry landing to High Island, is closed.  For those familiar with it, the bridge at Roll Over Pass has been badly damaged. Property along much of the peninsula has been devastated, with several communities virtually wiped out.

Damage to Bolivar Flats (an important stopover location for migrating shorebirds and a popular birding location), has not been assessed. Bolivar Flats is over 1,000 acres of beach, mudflats and salt marsh facing the Gulf of Mexico. Migrants begin to arrive in July and as many as 100,000 birds may spend the night. During winter months thousands of shorebirds, gulls, terns, ducks and raptors depend on the flats and surrounding area for food.  It was always a great place to study winter-plumaged Snowy and Piping plovers.

Famous for shorebirds, gulls and terns, the area also attracted its fair share of migrating songbirds and the occasional wanderer.  Prized vagrants for me included Varied Thrush and Mangrove Cuckoo.

High Island

The town of High Island also remains closed.  There is significant damage to the trees at the Houston Audubon Sanctuaries. This report is from the local caretaker at High Island.

Boy Scout Woods boardwalk out to the wastewater pond overlook was heavily damaged by waves!!!! There are dead cows everywhere and live cows walking all over High Island. I guess we will not be birding in the woods this fall.

I have not seen any reports on the famous heronry at Smith Woods.  The caretaker has reported the woods are full of warblers and other migrants. While not as heavily visited by out-of-towners in the fall, High Island has been a great place to study fall warblers.

Damage further east along the Texas coast and into Louisiana has been significant and travel to these areas, including the Sabine Woods sanctuary, is very limited.

What About the Birds?

Ike arrived during a heavy migration period.  Ike was a very large storm, as large as the entire state of Texas, and no doubt created havoc for thousands of birds in its path.  The large size not only contributed to the property damage, it prevented birds from feeding for a long period of time, and destroyed much of the local food supply.

Birders’ reports indicate that many migrants, including warblers and hummingbirds, survived the storm.  Other migrants are still arriving, only to find limited food. Hummingbirds may have been especially hard hit, as there are few flowers left to feed upon. Local residents who have been able to put out feeders report that birds are arriving in droves.

The lack of food may make it difficult for many birds to store up the energy necessary to make the trip across the Gulf of Mexico to the Yucatan Peninsula and beyond.  It will be interesting to see if large numbers of migrants elect to over-winter along the upper Texas coast.

Anyone in the area that can put out a feeder or two will probably be well rewarded by grateful visitors.

For Texas coastal birding, Corpus Christi and south is safe and productive.  The Corpus Christi Hawk Watch is up and running and starting to report good numbers.  Storm-blown pelagic species are showing up in unusual places, with Magnificent Frigatebirds among the most often mentioned.

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