2022-08-14 High Island

Golden Silk Orb-Weaver - Trichonephila clavipes
The woods at the Smith Oaks Sanctuary in High Island Texas were decorated with the webs of Golden Silk Orb-Weaver spiders. Many were as large as four inches long.
Cattle Egret - Bubulcus ibis
Adult Cattle Egret struggled to keep their juvenile offspring fed at the Smith Oaks Sanctuary in High Island Texas.

I left Kansas with Texas as my destination. The drive required three long days of driving. On the first two days, I covered about 300 miles each day. But the third day was substantially shorter. 

The location I planned to begin my Texas stay was at Aransas NWR, a few miles northeast of Corpus Christi. However, as I got nearer the Gulf Coast, I noticed storm clouds building ahead, and I thought I should check the weather forecast. It was then I realized a powerful storm was slamming into the Texas coast and centered on Corpus Christi. Rather than stepping into the teeth of the storm, I bent my path to the east and landed on High Island on the Bolivar Peninsula, just east of Galveston. I caught a few sprinkles on my drive and a few more after I arrived at my destination. But the skies were generally fair at High Island.

I checked into the High Island RV Park, and the lady who runs the camp remembered me from my visit in March 2021. Though I was tired from the drive, I could not let the nice afternoon light at the Smith Oaks Sanctuary go to waste. So I drove 1.3 miles to the reserve and spent about 4 hours with the birds there. Though the population of the waders and cormorants was lower than my visit 18 months ago, it was still well-worth the time I spent there.

When I visited the Smith Oaks Sanctuary 18 months ago, the place was ripe with tall wading birds committed to pair-bonding and nest building. There were multitudes of egrets, herons, spoonbills, and cormorants sailing past the newly built sky-walk, and I was in wader-heaven. 

This day’s visit provided meetings with mostly the same birds, but rather than nesting, hungry juveniles being fed provided the day’s entertainment. Not all the birds were near enough to the deck where I perched with my camera, but those that were, made the day worthwhile. 

The most fun I had was with Cattle Egrets. I didn’t see any of these during my last visit, but there were hundreds here on this August afternoon. The juveniles perched on the low trees at the edge of the rookery island, and calmly waited for their parents to return from their foraging expeditions. As soon as the adults showed up, the patience of the young birds transformed to chaos. With the youthful exuberance of greedy teenagers, they pursued the overworked adults until they gave up their bounty. Sometimes these chases took the players into the understory and beyond my view. But I could follow the wheezing begging calls with my ears, and have a good idea about their location. Usually, the adults sought a high perch and entertained me with a ringside seat at the theater.

I didn’t find many passerine birds on my visit, but Yellow-Billed Cuckoos teased me with distant or fleeting views. Carolina Wrens were more accommodating, and when not dancing in front of me, they sang their loud songs from unseen perches throughout the nearby woods.

There were invertebrates on hand to pique my curiosity. Tent Caterpillar clusters adorned the branches of most of the trees, and Golden Silk Orb-Weavers, large spiders about four inches long, hung from webs every few feet. I’d never met these spiders before, and they fascinated me. I learned that while common in Latin America, only on the Gulf Coast do we see them north of our border with Mexico.

After my visit to Smith Oaks, I settled in to rest for the night. I’d thought about returning to the Smith Oaks Sanctuary for more photography the following day, but I chose to surrender to the fatigue that my marathon run from Kansas had produced. I booked a two-night stay at the RV park, but realizing I needed to recover from my drive south, I booked a third night’s stay. The weather on the Texas Gulf Coast will take some getting used to. Its high heat and humidity aren’t something that I’m accustomed to.

There are several birding destinations between High Island and Brownsville, and I hope to be able to check them out in the days ahead. The birding might not be ideal this time of the year, but I can’t let that get me down. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

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