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.

More information


  • How completely terrible! If there is any effort in the future to set up funding to mitigate the damage Ike caused, I hope all birders will gladly donate to help out.

    If Cornell is planning any efforts, please let us know so we can assist as best we can with promotion and donations.

    Our hearts go out to all those effected by this natural disaster and for a speedy rebuilding of damaged properties and livelihoods.

    ~The Birdfreak Team

  • I am very disturbed by the title of your blog “Farewell High Island” High Island is not gone. Yes the woods are damaged but lots of habitat remains there, cleanup and replanting will begin as soon as possible.Please check the Houston Audubon website for pictures of High Island.We were able to access the sanctuaries there on Friday but can not begin cleanup activities until there is water and electricity.

    There is still lots of nesting habitat available in the Rookery.

    Bolivar Flats looks like it is in good shape.We will know more when we are able to access that area.

    The phones are not being answered at the office because there is still no electricity there. We who have electricity are working at home.

    Winnie Burkett

    Sanctuary Manager

    Houston Audubon

  • Hugh

    Hi Winnie, and thanks for providing an update from the scene. Let me explain about the title of this blog post: I meant my farewell fondly, in the spirit of leaving a good friend – and with the full expectation of seeing it again.

    I also meant “farewell” literally, as in I hope that High Island fares well in the coming months and years.

    I hope that my (and Sam’s) affection for this remarkable natural area came through in the body of the post, and I’m sorry if that didn’t come through fully in the title. I’m sure our own sentiments are echoed by the legions of birders out there who have ever spent an incredible day, week, or month birding the upper Texas coast. You and other High Island birders live inside a jewel of North American birding, and we have no doubt it will continue to shine. This post is just our way of taking note of the adversity that Ike brought.

  • Caroline Callery

    I echo Winnie’s distress over the impression made by your “Farewell”title.Houston Audubon members and friends will be working to restore and replant the sanctuaries they have saved for the birds, and to acquire more habitat on the Upper Texas coast. I hope birders will send donations to the Houston Audubon Society, 440 Wilchester, Houston 77079 to help with the enormous costs of restoration for the 3rd hurricane “hit” in 5 years.

  • Heidi

    Aside from a completely unsettling title… I’m not sure where the news of the TC Dike came from, pictures show that it’s still quite intact, if unstable and barren ( http://ngs.woc.noaa.gov/storms/ike/geo-C25983823.jpg ) If anything, we should be looking at Ike and the coast as a reminder that habitat is crucial and building along the coast should be discouraged. Also, GCBO – the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory – should probably be in the links for keeping track of the Smith Point Hawkwatch (cancelled for the rest of ’08) and other coastal sanctuaries.

  • Hugh

    Heidi – Thanks for the tip about GCBO; I’ve added the link above. As for news of the Texas City Dike, I hope Sam will weigh in shortly. Best, Hugh

  • As is typical in events like Hurricane Ike, early reports are a mix of information, with some situations not as bad as first reported, and others more severe. Here is an update based on the reports I have been seeing.

    Texas City Dike

    As Mark Twain might have said, “the reports of my demise are greatly exaggerated.” Texas City dike is closed to traffic but live and and somewhat well. Early reports were apparently based on the storm surge covering the dike. Michael Lindsey, reporting on Texbirds, has posted a few images on his web site.


    If you are familiar with the area, note the debris level along the Skyline Drive levee. I have read reports that the storm surge reached 11 feet but have not seen anything official.


    The city of Galveston posted a Re-entry flyer on their web site, effective September 24.

    Areas Located Behind the Seawall, East of 103rd Street/Cove View Lane:

    All residents and business owners may re-enter the City of Galveston, assess the damage to their property, and determine if they wish to remain in the city. Very limited water, sewer, natural gas, and electric services have been restored to areas behind the Seawall.

    Areas Not Located Behind the Seawall, West of 103rd Street/Cove View Lane:

    All west end residents/businesses may re-enter the City of Galveston, assess the damage to their property, clean, gather important belongings, and then leave the city to return to safe and more secure locations no later than 6:00 p.m. Water, sewer, natural gas, and electric services have not been restored to areas West of Seawall therefore sanitary living conditions are not available at this time. A look and leave re-entry phase began yesterday, Monday, September 22, for west end residents, businesses, and insurance adjusters.

    West Galveston Island

    I have not seen any pictures of west Galveston Island and only a couple of reports. Property damage may not be as bad as first feared, at least in some areas. The state park is closed and suffered a lot of damage.

    Heading east

    The Texas Department of Transportation has announced that ferry operations have been suspended until further notice, due to storm damage to the landings.

    Bolivar Penninsula and High Island

    The best reports I have seen on Bolivar Flats and High Island are by Winnie Burkett and are posted on the Houston Audubon Society web site.


    Other resources:

    The Gulf Coast Bird Observatory web site has photographs and reports on their facility, Smith Point Hawk Watch and the Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary.


    Scan through the archived reports on Texbirds


    The New York Times has an interesting story and photographs on the ongoing cattle roundup.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/26/us/26cattle.html?em (you may have to sit through an opening ad.)

  • As maybe a final update, here are a couple of recent posts from the TexBirds listserv.

    By Brooke Nicotra

    Yesterday, September 27, I got over to Bolivar for the first time. The whole peninsula is narrowed by loss of beach on the gulf side. Near High Island, the gullies created by erosion between segments of the geotube (a beach protection device which functions poorly)extend virtually to SR 87.

    If nothing is done, this part of SR 87 will soon look like the part east of

    High Island. The bridge over Rollover Pass is a single lane, very narrow.

    The dunes are completely gone the length of the peninsula and so are most

    of the beach scrub oaks which were on the Galveston Bay side of SR 87. You

    can see the whole width of the peninsula from your car. The barrier island aspects of it are clear.

    Getting on the beach from Retillon Rd is a bit difficult due to a large pile

    of debris. The beach is eroded and some gullies are pretty deep.

    Bolivar Flats has more than half of the protective pilings gone and most are

    gone separating the beach from the marsh. The beach itself is surprisingly clean, better than after the cleanups. There is debris in the marsh, stuck to the bushes. Two 18-wheeler trailers are overturned in the marsh. The beach is narrower and at high tide, there may not be any place to walk except the taller grass.

    As far as birds are concerned, I did not walk to the end of the flats, but

    there were not very many. I did not get to the jetty as I got a flat tire from driving through the debris and had to go back.

    There was a kestrel on Rettilon. On the beach before the sanctuary there were tricolored herons, marbled godwits, curlew, willets, a lesser yellowleg in the pools of erosion. There was a small flock of Wilson’s plovers, then scattered snowy plovers with lots of black-bellies as well. Other than a few sanderlings, not too many peeps. About 20 brown pelicans were in the water with about the same number of neotropical cormorants. Great egrets

    and some snowies were in the marsh. Overall, I though the number of birds

    was low, but there may have been many more around the corner.

    And this from Harrison Jordan

    I have read several posts about birding locations in the area, and thought I would supplement them from what I have picked up.

    Sabine Woods – boardwalk, kiosk and benches gone. Water supply questionable. Many trees survived but had salt water intrusion – long time survival not known. Authorities would rather only have home and business owners at Sabine Pass at this time. That little town was almost completely destroyed.

    Sabine Pass road in front of the Coast Guard Station – unknown. It never was

    really repaired after Rita.

    Sea Rim SP – almost ready to reopen (from the last hurricane) but massive damage. Future is unknown. At any rate, the road just past Sabine Pass was damaged and last thing I heard impassible.

    McFaddin and Anahuac NWR’s-severe damage. Both are closed until further

    notice according to the Fish&Wildlife folks.

    Trinity River NWR – damaged but open.

    High Island – refer to previous reports from Winnie. Thank goodness that it is so high – did you see the picture taken right after the storm when it truly was an island?