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During their spring migration, birds northbound from the Yucatan Peninsula must fly almost 600 miles across the Gulf of Mexico to reach the Texas coast. There are no islands along the way. The birds travel at 20 to 40 miles an hour, depending on the species. Many, especially the smaller ones, fly just a few feet above the waves. When they reach land, they come down to rest and feed for a day or two before moving on. For some 50 years a growing number of people from various states and foreign countries have checked into motels in Texas coastal cities to be on hand for the peak of the spring migration. They are a diverse group—young outdoor types, scientists, retired couples enjoying annual reunions, having drinks and comparing notes at the end of a long, active day. When you see six or eight people breakfasting together and a pair of binoculars beside each plate, you know they are birders.
Last year I went down to the Texas coast to see both birds and birders. I chose High Island, about 70 miles east of Houston. High Island is not an island but a hill, or mound, covering a geological formation called a salt dome. It rises smoothly, with gently sloping sides, out of the flat coastal plain and can be seen for many miles. It isn't high—47 feet—but it is large. A whole town sits on it, including a high school football field, a motel, a little brick post office. There are even vacant lots. The town, also called High Island, has a population of about 500. A mile to the south, the North American continent comes to a halt and the Gulf of Mexico begins, its waves lapping gray-brown beaches backed by modest dunes.
One day I tagged along with a group conducted by Peregrine Tours of Humble, Texas, an organization that conducts birding expeditions several continents. With them was Ben Feltner, the president of the company, and Bob Behrstock, vice-president and today's group leader. Starting from Winnie, Texas, we headed for High Island in five or six cars, stopping along the way to look at shorebirds in a rice field. There was no rice visible at this time of year, just a ragged sheet of water with clumps of mud sticking through it, and groups of wading, feeding and resting birds of many species. Long-billed dowitchers were there by the hundreds, but there were only a dozen black-necked stilts and two Wilson's phalaropes. Sometimes a whole flock would take off, circle and land again.
In some years a phenomenon called a fallout occurs. A cold front with rain stalls along the upper Texas coast. In order to avoid flying into it, the migrating birds stay on the shore, while more and more arrive from the tropics. The trees, rice fields and sand flats fill with birds. A single tree, for example, might contain 300 birds of 30 species. This is a situation that birders hope for but are likely to see only once every few years.
Approaching High Island on Highway 124 you cross the Intracoastal Waterway on a bridge that arches high in the air to give tugboats clearance. From the bridge you can see High Island as the arriving birds must see it from out in the Gulf: an elevation with trees in an otherwise featureless plain. Unless their habitat is the tidal flats or the grasslands, the birds make for the trees. This is what makes High Island a sort of international clearinghouse of birds.
We, too, made for the trees. Some of the best in High Island—a patch of woods perhaps half the size of a city block—are owned by the Houston Audubon Society. There is nothing parklike or handsome about the place. It's a tangle of trees and shrubs—holly, hackberry, magnolia, grapevines and Spanish moss—with paths cut through for birders. Feltner pointed out a nest of evil-looking fire ants, the first I had ever seen. In a clearing was the caretaker's vegetable garden.
Most of the visitors were interested in spring warblers, tiny, brightly colored birds that hunt insects in the treetops, moving in and out of view among the leaves. ("See the dead branch hanging down? Below it and just a little to the left. Oops, it flew!") But the spotting was good. In all, we saw 14 species of warblers.
Some of the people in the woods were English birders who had spent two weeks in Texas, visiting Big Bend National Park and then working their way up the coast. For one of them this represented a reunion of sorts; he and an American birder renewed an acquaintance that had begun seven years earlier in the Dry Tortugas off Key West, Fla.
On the way to another patch of High Island woods, all cars stopped and we got out for a redheaded woodpecker—not new to anyone, probably, but a lively, brilliant sight, pounding away at a tree in someone's yard. High Island is a mixture of the well kept-up and the casually rundown, here and there a weedy lot, a rusting boat hull, a house whose porch is falling off. Proximity to the sea seems to make such decrepitude picturesque and tolerable.
We ate lunch at a motel with a sign out that said WELCOME BIRD WATCHERS. A row of old drill bits embedded upright in concrete keeps careless patrons from ramming the building with their cars. Salt domes like the one under High Island are fairly common in east Texas and are often associated with oil. The High Island oilfield was brought in back in 1922. Down in the flatlands some of its wells are still producing, the huge pumps with their solemnly nodding heads going day and night.