Smith Oaks Bird Sanctuary
A Spring Event
As birders well know, spring marks the beginning of breeding season. Along the Texas coastline, a variety of waterbirds are busy finding mates, building nests, and raising their young. Much of the activity will take place in inaccessible places but fortunately, for those of us who lack the understanding and knowledge of experienced bird enthusiasts, there are breeding sites that are easy to reach and where we’re guaranteed a front row seat to one of nature’s annual events.
A mere one and a half hour drive southeast of Houston lies one of this region’s most astounding destinations: The Smith Oaks Bird Sanctuary. The 177 acre sanctuary is cared for by the Houston Audubon Society, which has four different protected areas at this High Island location as well as a number of others scattered throughout five different counties. The sanctuary is open year round but is busiest between February 15 and June 15, as well as September 15 to October 15.
During spring, the islands of Claybottom Pond become home to great egrets, roseate spoonbills, neotropic cormorants, snowy egrets, as well as a number of other waterbirds. Large birds like these require large nests, which necessitates a lot of stick hunting. Much of the enjoyment in visiting Smith Oaks lies in watching the birds return from the hunt, gliding in with construction material clamped tight by strong beaks.
As the weeks pass, the trees and bushes become densely packed with the nests of thousands of breeding pairs and before long, fuzzy little heads can be spotted in the nests. The number of hatchlings in a nest varies but the more there are, the less likely they will all survive. Siblings will compete for food and push each other out of the nest, or if the parents struggle to find enough food, a parent might push one out.
The Clean Up Crew
Claybottom Pond is generally a safe place to raise young, protected as it is from the possums and raccoons that would otherwise steal eggs and hatchlings alike. But there is one predator always capable of accessing the islands, though fortunately, not capable of climbing trees. When fledglings fall or are pushed out of the nest, they’ll either starve to death where they fall or be taken by an alligator, in which case, the alligator may well be the better option.
Claybottom Pond is a retention pond, surrounded on all sides by a high bank, along which runs a walking path. Four platforms have been built along the walking path to allow visitors to watch the activity on the islands as well as in the air. Though the birds are easy to see with the naked eye, a pair of binoculars would come in very handy.
Visitors to Smith Oaks can easily spend a couple of hours watching all the bird activity, but since the drive to get there is likely to have been long, it would be nice to have something else on the agenda. After visiting Smith Oaks, consider continuing south to the Bolivar Peninsula where you can stop at the beach or continue west to another of Audubon’s sanctuaries. If you continue all the way to the western end, you could stop to see Point Bolivar Lighthouse and might even consider taking the ferry to Galveston. The ride is free and it only takes 18 minutes to cross the ship channel. If you prefer to start heading back toward Houston after seeing Smith Oaks, you could consider stopping at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.