After the Storm

Brandon and I were at my mom’s house this weekend when a huge storm rolled in. Her house is tucked up on the side of a hill in the trees, and gusts of wind (some up to 70 mph) threw them back and forth like bullwhips. Rain and hail pelted us, and a continual boom of thunder echoed across the canyon. Lightning gave the sky an eery purple and green hue. Trooper jumped in bed with us. I thought about the little birds out there sitting in their nests, perched protectively on their eggs, rocking about with the gale force wind. I once saw a hummingbird weather a tough storm in her nest, and wondered if their small, mossy nests were melting in this deluge. I prayed we wouldn’t all wash away downstream.

We didn’t get much sleep, and I don’t imagine the wildlife outside our door did either. Eventually the storm moved on and left us with a clear day.

I drank my coffee on the porch and watched the birds set to work on rebuilding their neighborhood.

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The left wing of my nest blew away. Gotta make some repairs!

(Get it, wing?)

(This bird is one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen.)

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The butterflies were out drying their wings and soaking up the sun.

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A night heron was out checking on his patch of riverbank and seeing if he could scrounge up breakfast.

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The bees were out sucking down pollen..

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And even the nasty critters came out of hiding.

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The treetops were alive with bird chatter, as if they were all recounting the events of last night.

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And did you hear that crack of thunder? How are the Jones’?

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But most hilarious of all was this hawk, who was royally ticked that his perch, the edge of our roof, was now being monitored by a corgi.

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He and his fellow bird-of-prey cronies have determined the best location to watch the canyon is the pointed end of our roof. This always makes for entertaining and up-close bird encounters. As Trooper and I were sitting on the porch, watching the post-storm antics take place, the hawk zoomed in for a landing. I saw him coming and thought, “Oh no…”, knowing Trooper would blow a fuse trying to scare him off. Just as the hawk was was extending his talons to catch the edge of our roof, he looked down and saw us. Shock spread across his face, and I was close enough to see it. He let out a big “CAAWWWW!!! CAWWWW! Abort mission! Abort mission!” and nearly backflipped trying to switch directions, which immediately sent Trooper into a wave of hysterics.

The hawk didn’t stop with two caw! cries either. He flew up and down the canyon crowing about the evil little dog on his perch. Life wasn’t fair for that hawk–first he had to live through the storm, and now this? A dog had stolen his perch? What was life worth anymore?

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He didn’t stop crowing about the situation for a good five or ten minutes, resting periodically on a nearby tree before striking up his aggrevated call again.

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I see you, dog. Don’t make me come down there and show you where you stand on the food chain!

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He’s over there! He’s over there! The pathetic little thing is over there!

I couldn’t help but crack up at the animal drama. Who needs reality tv when I have these creatures to amuse me?

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Mommy? Hold me.

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There’s never a dull moment in nature when you slow down to listen to it.

Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge…and Pie!

Monday of last week was a good day. I got to spend time with my nieces and sister in law at one of the 19 National Wildlife Refuges in Texas and then follow our hike with a big plate of breakfast food and a piece of pie at Blue Bonnet cafe in Marble Falls.

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The Balcones Canyonlands refuge is an enormous expanse of green rolling hills northwest of Austin, on the northern side of Lake Travis. Most people don’t even know it’s there. In my opinion, it is one of the most beautiful parks near Austin. There’s running water, wide open spaces, and incredible views…and in the Spring, miles of wildflowers.

Map

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I had heard of this park because, being the nerd that I am, I wrote my senior thesis paper in college about two little endangered birds that inhabit Central Texas and this refuge. They require the old ashe juniper and shin oak trees in Central Texas. (Many endangered species are Earth’s pickiest animals.) These two birds, the Black capped vireo and the Golden cheeked warbler, caused a stir because a large portion of their critical habitat happened, inconveniently, to be located on Fort Hood army base. Fort Hood was in high gear at the time testing artillery and preparing troops for deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan. Fortunately, a system was created where ranchers nearby protected the habitat on their land in exchange for Fort Hood continuing to operate, and the little birds are doing better today. ANYHOW, not to bore you with wildlife facts!

Golden-cheeked Warbler (Dendroica chrysoparia), Friedrich Wilderness State Park, San Antonio, Texas

Photo credit: Flickr Commons user Vince Smith

But that is why the refuge is here.

Unlike the south side of Lake Travis, which is booming, this side of the lake is peaceful, quiet, and as untouched as you can possibly find so close to Austin. (Probably because no one knows about it.) Green hills give way to more green hills, and a little two-laned paved road winds through the 25,000 acre refuge. For perspective, Zilker park is 350 acres, the Domain is 303 acres, and UT’s main campus is 431, so 25,000 is quite a lot!

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(PS. The green space on the left side of that bend in the lake is Pace Bend park. Kind of cool to see where we had just camped from this vantage point!)

First, we popped in at the Visitor Center for some maps and a restroom break. Good news: this refuge has very clean restrooms. You never know what you’ll get at a park’s restroom, so I was pleased to walk in and smell a combination of bleach and lemon fragrance, which just screams Clean! to me, and see that everything was spotless. (Maybe I am as picky as the warbler about where I put my golden cheeks.)

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Hehe.

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At the Visitor Center, you can see a Golden cheeked warbler and Black capped vireo up close, along with other taxidermied animals. Some were a little creepy, like a possum hanging upside-down from a branch by his tail, but some were beautiful and a good representation of what was on the refuge.

There’s also a game, which appealed to my niece and talked about bird life.

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PS. My niece got glasses recently and I can’t get over how cute they are on her. Kids in glasses, how cute are they? Cute cute cute. Cute.

There are two hiking areas of the refuge: Warbler Vista and Doeskin Ranch. Warbler Vista has three trails and an awesome lookout, where you can see for miles. That’s Lake Travis in the distance.

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On the map, this lookout is called “Sunset Deck.”

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warbler vista trails 2

You can hike or drive. If driving, follow the road past the restrooms and after about a half mile, there will be a parking area on the left.

On the other end of the refuge is Doeskin Ranch. It had a good selection of trails–some went straight up the side of hills, while others stayed on flat ground and followed the creek through the valley.  We chose the Pond & Prairie and Creek Trails, which ended up being about two miles.

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doeskin ranch trials

We found a good wading spot in the creek and rested our weary bones. The sun had come out to remind us we were still in Texas, and as sweat slid down our backs, it was nice to put our feet in the cold water.

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Grace had told Stephanie that morning, “I want to wear this dress because Whitney loves animal print!”

That girl may only be four years old, but she is observant and knows the way to my heart–through leopard! 🙂

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I loved these views!

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Pond & Prairie and Creek Trail were easy, flat, or mostly flat, for the entire way. Although I do want to come back and hike some of the more challenging hillside trails in this area.

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We didn’t have any luck finding a warbler, having likely scared them off with our camp songs and chatter.

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This waterfall and the pool were awesome finds towards the end of our hike on Pond & Prairie, and I was wishing for a swimsuit. There weren’t other people for miles, so perfect conditions for wearing a swimsuit! Ha.

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The water seemed to be 3-4 feet deep here and would have been perfect for a post-hike dip.

But we couldn’t waste time, we had business to attend to at Blue Bonnet cafe.

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Stephanie and I ordered big plates of eggs and bacon and biscuits, Ann ordered a BLT, and we all ordered pie.

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My choice was banana cream.

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It was delicious, and along with the big glass of iced tea, totally hit the spot after a hot day of hiking.

A funny thing did happen at the cafe. I ordered Brandon a chocolate cream pie slice to go, and when the waitress came by I emphasized it was “for my husband.” However, when she brought the to-go box of pie to me, it had a fork sticking out of it. As if the waitress was saying, Sure, you say this is “for your husband,” but just in case you can’t wait until you get home to eat it, here’s a fork.

Pig.

I didn’t know whether to be offended or grateful! The truth I had to acknowledge was, that woman knew me and my tendencies whether I liked it or not!

By the grace of God, the pie made it home, to Brandon, without a bite missing.

Small miracle.

They say kids don’t remember their favorite day of television, and while that may only partially be true for Grace who quasi-enjoyed hiking in the heat, I think she enjoyed our day together. I had fun and loved Balcones. I will definitely come back with Brandon. Texas doesn’t have very many national refuges compared to other states, and it’s neat to have one in Austin’s backdoor. But unfortunately they don’t allow dogs, so Trooper will have to stay home, on his throne, barking at squirrels.

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Not bad for a Monday!

Plan Your Visit:

  • Blue Bonnet Cafe website: here
  • Note: Blue Bonnet Cafe only accepts cash or check
  • Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge Site: here
  • Warbler Vista Map
  • Doeskin Ranch Map
  • Pro tip: Use the restroom at the visitor center because the other ones aren’t as nice.
  • Side note: You can hunt on the refuge during hunting season. Click here for more information.

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Silhouettes

Back in January, my mom and I drove to New Mexico to see the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, the winter stomping grounds for thousands of geese and cranes.

One night, en route to the hotel, we saw a bunch of photographers and birders gathered on the side of the road with their binoculars and cameras pointed in the same direction. (Did I mention the first rule of wildlife spotting is to look for humans?)

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Freshwater ponds at the base of the mountains were on fire with the day’s last rays of sun, and all across the sky, cranes were sounding out bugle calls as they came in to join their comrades.

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It was like a painting, or a scene from a movie, almost too perfect to be real life!

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Cranes like shallow water to wade and roost in, and these ponds were perfect for them. They had been feeding all day 20 miles north of the refuge in some corn fields, and flew back for the night.

(That’s a lot of effort for food, if you ask me.)

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One of the rangers told us that every day is different; some days they roost in other fields, some days they spend all day at another refuge, and can’t be seen coming in until after dark, and some days they leave too early in the morning to be photographed. Sadly, you can’t schedule performances like this with wildlife.

But today, here they were, striking poses for us in perfect lighting.

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Work it, cranes! I love it!

One of my favorite quotes about cranes is as follows, “The ultimate value in these marshes is wildness, and the crane is wildness incarnate.” — Aldo Leopold

Seeing these cranes in their element was a brush with that pristine “wildness” and something we will always remember.

Plan Your Visit

  • How to Get There: Take I-10 from Texas past El Paso, head north at Las Cruces
  • Where to Stay: Holiday Inn in Socorro (20 min) or Bosque Birders RV Park (5 min)
  • Audio Guide: purchase at welcome center for $2.50
  • Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge Website: http://www.fws.gov/refuge/bosque_del_apache/
  • Bernardo Wildlife Area Website: Click Here
  • Directions to Bernardo from Bosque: Head north on I-25, take exit signs indicating Ladd S. Gordon Waterfowl Complex, continue onto HWY 116 (looks like frontage rd of 25; runs parallel)
  • Local Eats: Chile burger at the Owl Bar & Cafe
  • What to Bring: A TELEPHOTO LENS!! Don’t even think about going without one. Rent one at your local camera store. You will be glad you did!

The Best Birding in All of New Mexico

To someone who leaves coffee in the microwave for days on end, birding is tedious. I’m no good at it, and it often ends up as a sidebar on a larger outdoor adventure.

But–and there is a big but–I’ve found a few special places on this earth where I love to bird, and would even bet my girlfriends would too. Two weeks ago I visited one such place, the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, and it was an experience I will never forget.

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The Bosque (“bos-kay” as it is called) is located on the Rio Grande river in a dry and barren part of New Mexico, about 10 hours from Austin and San Antonio.

Imagine Area 51 territory, and you have the scene. It’s hard to imagine anything but a vulture and a dung beetle could thrive out here.

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But the green marshy banks of the Rio Grande are a welcome sight to wildlife and especially to the millions of migratory birds that cross the desert each year.

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Strung out along the river to host this natural phenomena of bird life are a series of refuges: the Bosque del Apache, Bernardo, Sevilleta, and Valle de Oro.  Each year the refuges are flooded with water from the Rio Grande to provide wading and roosting pools. Corn is planted in dry places to provide food.

The birds are in heaven over it all.

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It’s like their Hyatt Hill Country resort, or Buccees; a spacious joint with clean restrooms, lots of food, and tons of fellow travelers. The birds swarm around the pools and corn fields like people to the kolache stand, and everyone is yacking away.

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All they do is chit chat and eat, chit chat and eat. Honks and quacks and bugles fill the air and create quite a racket. I did wonder what they could be discussing.

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Crane vocal chords are twice as long as their necks, so when they start bugling they can give it some power.

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I think I would do well as a crane…sitting around in a field with my friends eating and chatting all day.

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And mating for life.

Mom and I had come to see the refuge’s main claim to fame: the Sandhill cranes, Canadian geese, and Snow geese that winter over on the refuge.

Our first stop was the welcome center.  It was nice! Clean restrooms, cute gift shop, and helpful staff. We got the audio tour CD (recommended) and spoke with the staff about where to see the birds.

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There were a few educational displays to teach about the wildlife on the refuge and see their tracks and migration routes. Kid friendly! Check out the Sandhill crane’s migration route. The last dot on the map is the Bosque.

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Take the tour from the comforts of my own vehicle? Yes please. Rolling with cupholders and seat heaters is my kind of wilderness travel.

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Added perk: someone else was driving.

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I count four sets of duck tail feathers. Do you?

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Two geese come in for a landing. What a backdrop!

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Shout out to my husband for the new telephoto I got to take on the trip! I felt like a bird paparazzi.

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This duck couldn’t get any privacy.

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We even saw….drumroll please….

A bald eagle!

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That was a first for me. He wouldn’t turn around but showed off us his big white neck and brown shoulders.

He did not like the paparazzi.

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Insert burger break here. We headed to the Owl Bar & Cafe a few minutes away and had green chile cheeseburgers–yum–while formulating our evening plan.

We decided to come back to the refuge before sunset to see the birds come in to roost. We hit it perfectly. We drove around until we saw a bunch of people who looked very professional gathered around a pond edge. (Birding 101: follow the people who look like they know what they’re doing.)

We pulled up and got out nonchalantly as if we were experts too.

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Within a few minutes one of the birding pros pointed to the sky. I turned and looked. Off in the distance, great black clouds were billowing up from the horizon. As the black clouds moved closer I could see parts of them splitting off and then coming back together, and then splitting apart again.

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A mass of geese were heading towards us at full speed! Soon enough I could hear a roar of honks like an army of New York City taxi cabs. As the birds drew closer, the sound got louder, until it reached a crescendo as they passed overhead. It felt like I was living in a Planet Earth documentary. What an awesome sight! And one I could appreciate without knowing a single call or bird name.

On our way back to Texas the following day we checked out the Bernardo refuge. We had received a tip that the cranes would be spending the day grazing there. It was spectacular and there birds everywhere. We nearly had to shew them off the road!

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We left completely birded out.

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I’m so glad we went. It was a long haul from Texas but it was worth it to be up close and personal with these majestic birds and to see firsthand, instead of in a magazine or a textbook, how they live on this earth and make their incredible cross continental journey.

PS. How some people bird…

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Things to Know

  • How to Get There: Take I-10 from Texas past El Paso, head north at Las Cruces
  • Where to Stay: Holiday Inn in Socorro (20 min) or Bosque Birders RV Park (5 min)
  • Audio Guide: purchase at welcome center for $2.50
  • Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge Website: http://www.fws.gov/refuge/bosque_del_apache/
  • Bernardo Wildlife Area Website: Click Here
  • Directions to Bernardo from Bosque: Head north on I-25, take exit signs indicating Ladd S. Gordon Waterfowl Complex, continue onto HWY 116 (looks like frontage rd of 25; runs parallel)
  • Local Eats: Chile burger at the Owl Bar & Cafe
  • What to Bring: A TELEPHOTO LENS!! Don’t even think about going without one. Rent one at your local camera store. You will be glad you did!

 

Packing List: Winter Birding on the Coast

I just returned this afternoon from a trip to the Texas coast, and I was reminded why I love the beach in winter. Tourists have gone home, the beaches are empty, and every few weeks there are golden days where the weather reaches into the 70’s and 80’s.

Packing List – Winter on the Texas Coast

Hiking Pants – Jeans or Prana Halle Pants

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Merrell Siren Sports

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Binoculars

Tilley Hat

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Turtleneck

Half Zip

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Sunglasses

Sunscreen

OFF (Mosquitos are everywhere.)

Hunter rain boots (guarantee no sand in your shoes)

and a camera

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What to Wear: Winter on the Texas Gulf Coast

Winter on the Texas Gulf Coast

For the last two years, I’ve made wintertime trips to the Texas Coast. I would have never thought to do this on my own, but thanks to work meetings and a friend’s wedding, I’ve been forced to. And I’ve come to love it.

Why? Because I often dream of having an entire beach to myself, and in Texas in the winter, I do. It is so peaceful to walk up and down the beach with nothing but the sound of the waves crashing and seagulls overhead.

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Our winters in Texas are so mild that it can be really nice out most days. Last week was a fluke deal; 70 degree temps, sun high in the sky, and not a soul on the Bolivar coast. I was in heaven.

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And it’s not like I miss squeezing into a bikini and parading around in public. Just being honest.

So in case you’re seeing my logic, and want a winter coastal getaway of your own, the above outfit is a must have.

Click the Polyvore set above for links.

I own the purple jacket on the left, and just love it. It is the North Face Apex Bionic softshell and has lusciously soft fleece cuffs and collar, a sturdy zipper and large pockets.

I also own the Hunter rain boots above , and prefer them over anything else for winter beach walking because they keep sand out of your socks and give you the freedom to tread in the waves without getting your feet wet.

While I don’t own the specific Tilley hat above, I do own a hemp Tilley, and it has stood up through thick and thin.  I think this tweed version is cute.  Tilley’s float, are made with quality materials, and have a lifetime guarantee. Even in a Texas winter, the sun beats down, and you need a hat.

A typical winter day on the Texas coast will start off chilly and misty and then turn warm and sunny in the afternoon, so I’ve included this Lululemon half zip for practicality.  Layering is key. That is one of my personal mottos.

Don’t forget your binocs. Birds love the Texas coast and you will want to keep an eye out for Roseate spoonbills, ibises, and the iconic Whooping crane.

Have fun!

That Time I Turned into a Birder at High Island, TX

I’ll be the first to admit, I don’t consider myself a birder. I love and appreciate birds, in the same way that I love and appreciate other wildlife, but the notion of knowing every species and identifying them by the sound of their calls is nauseating.

I’d much rather stare through my binoculars simply appreciate their beauty.

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But if one place on earth could turn me into a birder, it would be the Texas coast–and more specifically, High Island. I just went there and my heart is starting to turn. Each year, birds of all shapes, colors, and sizes travel across the Gulf of Mexico to the US and land in great number at High Island.

High Island is actually not an island at all. It is an elevated piece of land that sits on a salt dome.  Because of its higher elevation, the area withstands storm surges, ergo the trees are much older and taller and ergo, they provide more habitat for birds.

Houston Audubon gave us a top notch tour.  Four young energetic people about my age work on High Island for Audubon, and I found that surprising given the stereotypical birder demographic.

They were fun. They hopped around setting up scopes for us and zooming in on the best birds. They were walking indexes of bird facts and figures.

I’ve ranked the sites we visited according to the scenery and variety of birds. They were all fabulous.

3rd Place: Boy Scout Woods

We started at Boy Scout Woods, a flat forested patch of ground with freshwater ponds that attract birds.

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Boardwalks connect various viewing areas and we followed one out to a series of water treatment ponds used by the city of Winnie.

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Wetlands are great at filtering and cleaning water, and as an added bonus is they create prime habitat for birds.

2nd Place: The Rookery

I loved the Rookery because of the viewing platforms and the variety of birds.  Even during winter, there were so many species of birds to see.  Houston Audubon had build double-decker wooden platforms on the water’s edge to accomodate traffic from the thousands of birders and photographers who come to this property each year.

Double decker platforms, y’all. These birders mean business.

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It was at the Rookery that I saw the biggest bee hive I’ve ever seen in my life. Impressive!

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1st Place: High Island Beach.

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We lined up chairs facing the Gulf of Mexico and set out our high powered scopes. Our young guides found everything from White ibis to fishing Redheads. A hundred yards out out from the shore, birds of all shapes and sizes zoomed across the sky as they looked for a place to nest.

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It was beautiful. We alternated from this view to the one behind us, where dozens upon dozens of birds fished in the wetland and marsh areas, rested on fence posts, and darted around oil derricks and over the heads of cattle. It was so Texas. Oil, cattle, and wildlife.

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The highlight for me was catching this photo on my iPhone–yes, my iPhone–by holding it up to a high powered scope.

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Even these two white Ibis are enjoying the sunset. Gorgeous!

I’m turning into a birder. Slowly, but surely.

Moral of the story, get to High Island once in your lifetime. Bolivar is a cute beach town nearby and we stayed in a beach house on the water. We woke up to a very still winter morning and sapphire blue sky. I counted two people on the entire beach, and was reminded why I love the beach in the winter.

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When to go

Prime in Spring (like April) but good anytime.

What I Learned

Bring a high powered camera lens. You can rent this at a camera store.

Bring bug spray. Mosquitos are everywhere.

While in the area

Stay in a beach house in Bolivar.

Visit Anahuac, McFaddin, and Moody National Wildlife Refuges (totaling 104,000 acres!)

Ship’s Wheel in Bolivar is good for a night out

Take the ferry across to Galveston and see the East End Lagoon

How far is it from Houston and Austin?

It’s only an hour and a half from Houston, 3 h 45 minutes from Austin, and a quick drive from Hobby airport if you’re coming from anywhere else.

Click here for more info on High Island.