Texas is for the Birds – Part 1
Kemah, Texas
January 2024

The back lawn ended at the water’s edge, above the lapping waves of Galveston Bay. Extending into the open water was an 1/8th mile long pier. From the pier one could see the other waterfront homes as well as the container ships and oil tankers heading to and from the port of Houston. Along the horizon, perched a lone derelict offshore oil rig. Terns, osprey, gulls, pelicans, and herons flew overhead throughout the day. At dusk, large flocks of black-bellied whistling ducks flew in formation, going to their nighttime resting spot. When the weather was mild enough, we could also watch the amusement park rides lift and twirl patrons at the Kemah Boardwalk.

I came to Texas to visit a good friend and to explore some of the many wildlife refuges along the Gulf Coast. There I might find uncommon birds, alligators, turtles, maybe even a dolphin or two. The weather was often challenging: rain, fierce winds, and frigid cold. During one night, the puddles left from from a rain storm, froze.

Wildlife often remains hidden in stormy or extreme weather, hunkered down in trees or in thick brush on the ground. I did see a few turtles, but no alligators. The cold was too much for them, and they stayed immersed in mud in a kind of hibernating stupor called brumating. Seeing alligators is always a small thrill. They are exactly what modern life eschews; that is, what is primeval, wild, dangerous, and unpredictable.

During my visit, I made several trips to Seabrook Wildlife Refuge and Pine Gully Park, to Armand Bayou Nature Center, and Galveston Island. The networks of highways were a bit intimidating, with constant traffic and construction delays. Even the GPS got regularly confused. I was especially hoping to see birds not found in Northern California. And I was eager to spot a lifer, a bird I have never knowingly seen before .

The murky bayous, dense undergrowth, and muddy earth felt like the primordial wellsprings of life, even in the wintry chill. Natural areas are mixed in with freeways, housing developments, shopping malls, oil refineries, and petrochemical plants. Open space – land that is neither developed nor protected as a park – remains, but appears to be quickly disappearing.

Spending two weeks in a house with windows facing open water brings a certain calm and perspective. Living near water – any water: ocean, bay, lake, pond, stream – seems to empty the mind of its troubles and bring a natural spaciousness to the heart.

Below are a variety of sights seen. The three lifers I did identify were the neotropic cormorant, red-bellied woodpecker and the swamp sparrow. Other birds spotted were roseate spoonbills, ibises, egrets and many more. On Galveston Island, I was surprised by a flock of sandhill cranes, feeding in a dry field near the main road. I knew that the cranes winter in Texas, but I didn’t expect to see them by accident without searching them out.

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