2023-06-25 High Island

It’s been nearly two weeks since I published my last episode about my 2023 North American Expedition. Since then I have fallen way behind in my story-telling chores. Having crossed through Alabama, I have more episodes to share. Below is the account of my first stop in Texas. It was a hard decision, but I bypassed my favorite haunts in the Lower Rio Grande Valley so I could spend time at Kickapoo Caverns State Park. As I pen these notes, I am camped at Davis Mountains State Park, where I cannot seem to stop myself from taking more pictures and piling on even more stories to share. <Sigh>

Tricolored Heron - Egretta tricolor
Anytime I visit High Island Texas, I can not pass up an opportunity to stop by the Smith Oaks Bird Sanctuary. I have never been disappointed with the times I’ve spent there. Wading birds and cormorants abound, and lots of nesting takes place.
American Alligator - Alligator mississippiensis
During my June 2023 visit, I was treated to a confrontation between a 12 foot alligator, and a somewhat smaller one. The smaller gator got away, but not before the big boy made his point.
River Cooter - Pseudemys concinna
I could not resist capturing a picture of this turtle with a dragonfly perched on his nose.
Anhinga - Anhinga anhinga
My favorite memory of my June 2023 visit was watching an Anhinga parent feeding its twin offspring.

2023-06-24 Saturday

My main objective while in Texas, is to visit Kickapoo Caverns and meet its breeding birds. Last year I was a couple of weeks too late in the season, and I missed most of them. The Black-Capped Vireo teased me during my 2021 visit, and was absent in 2022. I’m hoping I will have better luck on this year’s visit. I plotted a trail to Kickapoo Caverns near Brackettville. The route I chose for my journey passes only 20 miles from High Island. I would not forgive myself if I didn’t pay a visit to the rookery there. 

Much of the Gulf Coast of Texas is protected from the wrath of the powerful storms that brew in the Caribbean. From The mouth of the Rio Grande to Galveston, these low lying sandy islands stretch nearly unbroken about ten miles from the mainland. East of Galveston, these islands don’t exist. So when storms blow in, the resulting merciless pounding of wind and storm surge often devastate communities along the coast. Folks who choose to build homes in the region, put their homes on stilts fifteen, twenty feet high or more. Even these homes are not immune to the destructive forces of wind and water, and may end up as rubble scattered for miles across the low-lying landscape. High Island itself is raised 38 feet above the surrounding plain, because of an enormous salt dome buried deep below. I’ve seen photographs of this 16 square mile land mass surrounded by water after Hurricane Ike ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2008.

2023-06-25 Sunday

What a nightmare getting through Baton Rouge was Saturday. If the thunderstorms were not enough, there seems to have been an accident or some highway misfortune ahead of my route. All lanes of traffic turned into a VERY slow moving parking lot for about fifteen miles. But I prevailed, and west of Baton Rouge I crossed the Atchafalaya Basin. Here, the I-10 traverses the wooded swamp on a forty foot high, 18.2 mile long bridge. I found my way to the Atchafalaya Welcome Center between Lafayette and Baton Rouge. The Welcome Center spreads out under the bridge. Tuckered out from my long drive through Mississippi and half of Louisiana, I settled in to spend the night.

Now I was less than 3 hours from High Island, so I called to book two nights at the RV park there. I’ve stayed there twice in the past, and found it to be the best option for camping in the village. Boondocking is not an option there. On my past visits, my host at the RV park was a lady. But I learned she sold the park and moved to Alabama. She was a nice lady, and an excellent hostess.

For my money, the only ‘must see’ location for birding on High Island is the Smith Oaks Bird Sanctuary. This reserve covers 177 acres, and has a variety of habitats, including dense woods, wetlands and large ponds. Most enticing is an elevated boardwalk that rises into the canopy, and leads to a platform overlooking the 20 acre Claybottom Pond. 

During my Sunday afternoon vigil at Smith Oaks, I focused exclusively on the birds out on Claybottom Pond. Most of the wading birds had nearly grown offspring to feed. So there were plenty of opportunities to see adult birds hard at work bringing back nourishment to hungry families. Particularly fun was watching the parents bringing back meals. Establishing which of their hungry progeny was most deserving of the prize they brought back was their next challenge.

Waders (herons and egrets) were not the only birds nesting out on the pond. Cormorants and their kin shared perches and nesting locations. As I scanned the scene below, I saw a couple of young Anhingas perched on a snag perhaps 200~250 feet from where I was positioned. I was hoping to see parents bring back food. I was twice lucky. My meetings with these enigmatic ‘snake birds’ until now were roosting birds. Getting the breeding behavior documented was a treat for me.

Another few moments of excitement occurred when a 12 foot American Alligator gave a proper thrashing to a smaller version of itself. Much of the commotion happened behind brushy foliage. But I glimpsed the white belly of the smaller gator as, caught in the jaws of his better, he was thrown around. He made his escape before I could get a good look at him. But the victor, still apparently angry, took out his wrath on a small log floating nearby. He worked on the log as if it were his worst enemy, then floated out into the open water, where he showed off his full length and all his glory.

There were a few woodland birds nearby, but these were content to call from unseen perches. Blue Jays, Carolina Wrens and Yellow-Billed Cuckoos were among them. I caught sight of the cuckoo a few times as it repositioned itself from one hidden perch to another. 

During my time on the observation deck, I endured high heat and humidity. There were very few other visitors during my time there. One exception was a group of about five or six birders out on a 24-hour competition they called the “Hotter Than Hell” bird count. When asked about what I was seeing, I mentioned the Yellow-Billed Cuckoo I’d been hearing. I recall one of the more ‘clever’ participants scoffed it was probably a cardinal. I didn’t argue, but when I described the alligator incident, I used a Great Egret’s position to note the location of the earlier drama. He recounted the story to one of his partners, and called it a heron. I will let the readers here decide just how ‘clever’ he was.

Tuesday, I drove away from High Island with a plan to cut the distance to my next stop in Brackettville. I made it to a rest area in Guadalupe County, some 40 miles east of Austin. Wednesday I continued moving east, headed for Brackettville. I had no reason to rush. Kickapoo Caverns would not open until Friday. I booked a spot at the RV Park in nearby Fort Clark for Wednesday through Saturday night. I hoped it would give me time to work on my blogs.

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