Hotspot Update: Return to Smith Oaks Rookery on High Island

Great Egret with nesting material, High Island, Texas.  Photo of John Phillips Jr.Great Egret with nesting material, High Island, Texas. Photo of John Phillips Jr.

Smith Oaks is a treasure. It’s one of four Houston Audubon-maintained sanctuaries on High Island, Texas, and the perfect place if you want to see large numbers of songbirds, hummingbirds, and other northbound neotropical migrants that just crossed the Gulf of Mexico every spring.

John Phillips Jr. (right) is a bird photographer who has made it his mission to photograph and feature shorebirds and songbirds within 100 miles of his home in Orange, East of Houston. In “Hotspots Near You” in our February 2013 issue, he reported that Claybottom Pond in the sanctuary is the site of another must-see treasure: a colony in which thousands of birds – Roseate Spoonbills, Great and Snowy Egrets, Tricolor Herons and other waterfowl – nest every spring.

Photographer John Phillips Jr. with fellow birdwatcher Teapot.  Photo of John Phillips Jr.Photographer John Phillips Jr. with fellow birdwatcher Teapot. Photo of John Phillips Jr.

Read about Smith Oaks Bird Sanctuary, Hotspot Near You No. 153.

Read about the Rookery in Smith Oaks (Houston Audubon).

We asked John if he had recently returned to the hotspot. He sent us the following report:

Date: March 18, 2014
Time: 3:30-6:30 p.m.
Weather: 20°C under a clear blue sky

Two weeks ago, the reports from the colony were dismal. No large shorebirds were trying to nest. The prolonged winter on the Gulf Coast may have delayed their normal arrival at this time of year.

Upon entering the lake and colony, I was pleasantly surprised to see large numbers of Great Egrets and Roseate Spoonbills which had apparently arrived over the past two weeks. Early estimates indicate that approximately 35-40% of the rookery was already filled.

BW0213_SmithOaksTX500x500The northern end of the U-shaped island in the middle of the lake closest to the viewing decks has more birds than the southern end, so the best bird watching or photography is on the fourth bridge further north.

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The water in the lake is high, which is a good sign because in the past, as summer approached, the channel between the island and the bridges almost dried up. This could be devastating to the colony, as it would allow animals from the mainland to invade the nests in search of eggs.

The best time to visit is from now until the end of May. If you come later, the heat and mosquitoes will take you away if you are not protected.

The birds won’t leave until the end of June. Certainly, great egrets, spoonbills and cormorants are the first to nest. Next month look for cattle egrets, snowy egrets, little blue herons, tricolored herons and a few storks to follow.

Two portable toilet facilities are provided, but there is no water or other amenities on the premises. The main gate is open and the settlement is about 100 yards from the main parking lot. There are four large bridges for birdwatching up close, that is, from a distance of about 50 to 60 feet. Birds are constantly flying, picking up sticks for nests and dancing in the sky.

Every day is a good time for birdwatchers to visit the colony. For photographers, evening is best. This is when the sun will be behind you, fully illuminating the birds in front of you.

Watching birds as they forage for sticks and bring them back to build nests is one of the highlights of this beautiful setting. You will not be disappointed. And with a little planning, you can fill an entire day of birding while driving a short distance.

Anahuac National Wildlife Reserve is just 24 km away. Boy Scout Woods, another Houston Audubon sanctuary great for spotting migrating songbirds, is just two blocks away. For pelicans, if the tide is good, try Rollover Pass on the Bolivar Peninsula at Gilchrist, about 8 miles towards Galveston. The flats on the north side are also home to quite a few birds. Bolivar Flats, a globally significant birding area and International Site of the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve System, is 20 miles towards Galveston. And before you get to Boliver Flats, the pier at the end of 17th Street may have reddish egrets foraging. – John Phillips Jr.

See all hotspots near you.

See all hotspots near you.

Update: On Monday, March 24, 2014, teams of state and federal biologists were checking eastern Galveston Island, Pelican Island and the Bolivar Peninsula for birds and other wildlife stained wild animals following a spill on the Houston vessel. Channel enabled Saturday March 22.

Read a bulletin sent by Texas Parks & Wildlife on March 24, 2014.

Learn how the Galveston oil spill threatens the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary (National Geographic).