Friday, May 3, 2013

High Island's Rookery

I had only walked about 20 yards along a wooded path when I came upon a clearing. There before me stood a photographer dressed in a camouflage suit with his camera and its large camouflaged telephoto lens mounted on a tripod.

He stood motionless staring through the lens at a nearby tree. I copied his immobility and waited.

Moments later he motioned me forward. As I passed him, he whispered, “Wood thrush.”

I smiled and nodded knowingly. Not wanting to disturb the silence of the scene, I continued on.

I met other devoted birders on my way to the Rookery at the Smith Oaks Sanctuary at High Island (a short ride on the Galveston – Bolivar ferry and a 30-mile drive). I was clearly a babe in the woods of some knowledgeable folks.

We had traveled to High Island on the advice of Ellen Hufft, who was in charge of Registration for FeatherFest and Nature PhotoFest. She enthusiastically answered our questions about the gathering for the “… serious or casual bird-watcher or nature photographer.....experienced or new outdoor enthusiast.....or (just) someone who wants some exercise, fresh air and sunshine.”

The annual event is held in conjunction with “thousands of birds (that) take wing to our island each spring during an arduous northward migration across the Gulf from Central and South America” (

Although we did not attend any of the over 100 seminars, workshops, and field trips offered over the four-day event, a quick look at the group’s web page led us to visit the registration area. In answer to my question about where we could photograph some birds on our own, Ms. Hufft suggested the Rookery at High Island.

And that is how I found myself walking along trails through the Smith Oaks Sanctuary—without a map. As a substitute for leaving a trail of bread crumbs (a la Hansel and Gretel), at certain points along the trails, I would turn around and take a photo of a stretch I had just traveled. The photos above became my “map.”
Seeing this stairway was a sign that I was close to an oft-visited site.
A few yards from the top of the stairs, there it was--the Rookery.
From the web page"The U-shaped island in the middle of Claybottom Pond at Smith Oaks has become a favored roosting and nesting place for thousands of waterbirds. In the spring and summer herons, egrets, cormorants and spoonbills build their nests and raise their chicks on the predator-free island.
When we first acquired the pond nothing was nesting there. This was probably due to the fact that birds, turtles and alligators in the pond were often used for target practice.
"Our 'no hunting' policy resulted in quick changes and in July 1995, 50 heron nests were found on the island and birds were coming in to roost every night. By 1997, 332 pairs of birds nested on the island and the first pair of Roseate Spoonbills showed up. The number of pairs of birds grew to 1083 in 2003, and now it is quite a show.

"Every year is different but in an average year, nesting activity starts in March when Great Egrets start spending the day on the island displaying their gorgeous plumes to try to attract a mate.
"The night we had the most birds was August 30, 1998 when we counted 13,069. The birds in the sunset light is quite a sight.

As you can tell, any day is a good day to watch the show in the Rookery.

And back to the Festival, "a record crowd of 625 birders and photographers attended FeatherFest 2013. While they came from across the United States, Canada, France and England, 82 percent of our guests hailed from Texas, 55 percent were first-time FeatherFest attendees, and 38 percent had never attended a birding festival before."
And this year, Festival goers saw a record 235 different species of birds.

We hope to make it to FeatherFest 2014.

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