The day didn’t start well. I saw only two birds at my first stop. And the dark clouds overhead threatened rain at any moment.

But it never rained, and I left with a birding experience I’ll never forget.

My day started at Boy Scout Woods, one of four Houston Audubon Society’s bird sanctuaries on High Island.

Their open house on the day of my visit attracted a big crowd, perhaps the reason I saw only two birds on my midday walk through the woods. They were two crested caracaras flying in the distance as I stood on the wetland observation platform.

By early afternoon, I headed to Smith Oaks, the largest of High Island’s four sanctuaries. I parked at the Old Mexico Road entrance and headed down the trail toward Claybottom Pond. I joined a half-dozen others on an observation platform overlooking the pond.

I immediately felt their buzz. After standing there for a few minutes myself, I understood why. I was standing at the edge of a world alive.

The steady drone I heard to my left came from the birds of the rookery, a portion of which I could see through the willows. Above the drone, I heard the unmistakable drumming calls of two male bullfrogs, first one, then the other, over and over, both intent on outcompeting the other for a mate.

On a nearby shoreline, I spotted an American bittern, motionless, eyes peering into shallow water. I glanced away for a moment to watch coots picking at water plants. When I looked back, the bittern was gulping down a fish.

As I stood still and watched, cormorants and great egrets flew by with regularity, one after the other. Soon, their mission became clear — each flew back to the rookery with a nest-building twig in tow.

I then moved on to the next platform, one built directly in front of the bird rookery on Heron Island, a U-shaped island whose left side faced the platform. This vantage point offered a close-up, unobstructed view of the Claybottom Pond Rookery.

Willow trees lined the edges of the island and it seemed as if every branch of every tree hung heavy with birds. At the top were Neotropic cormorants, with great egrets and roseate spoonbills filling in the spaces below.

The breeding colors of the latter two were vivid at such a close range. Striking was the lime green color around the eyes of the great egrets and the orange tails and orange-lined eyes of the roseate spoonbills.

The birds were mostly busy. Some were already nesting, while others built nests one twig at a time. Still others, like great egrets, were spreading their elegant, long white plumes in an attempt to attract a mate.

As I watched, I couldn’t help but hear a trio best described as croaks, gurgles and oinks. But being unfamiliar with bird voices, their source and meaning remain a mystery.

I moved to an area with a view of the open side of Heron Island. Here, I counted six large alligators on the banks and in the water, their presence indicating some degree of success in harvesting from this massive collection of breeding birds and offspring.

In the pamphlet “Birds of the Rookery,” Houston Audubon Society states: “No other place in Texas allows for such an intimate view of the home life of colonial water birds.”

Sounds like good old Texas bragging. But it’s not bragging if it’s true.

Steve Alexander, a retired marine scientist, is a Texas Master Naturalist and an adjunct faculty member at Texas A&M University at Galveston. He’s a regular contributor to The Daily News.


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